IT is not possible to eradicate dissent in a nation of 220 million people. On any issue, at any time, there will be someone who takes an opposing view, someone who offers a different perspective, someone who levels a criticism, someone whose values diverge. Denying this is tantamount to insanity.
And yet, the state’s efforts to eradicate dissent continue apace. The recent closure of Radio Mashaal on the grounds that its programming undermined Pakistan’s interests and facilitated a “hostile intelligence agency’s agenda” was only the latest in a series of crackdowns against dissenting voices. Journalists and bloggers are abducted (or nearly so) with alarming frequency. Foreign correspondents have been expelled from the country. And it is not just dissenting voices in the media that are facing pressure; attempts to curtail the activities of domestic and international NGOs are under way, with many of the latter facing expulsion.
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These tactics seem excessive given that decades of martial law have instilled a strong culture of self-censorship and caution among those who seek to challenge the state. Starting out as a reporter in Karachi 15 years ago, I remember being told to stay clear of religion, the military and Altaf Hussain — in order to stay out of trouble. Times have changed, but not by much. You can criticise Altaf Hussain with little fear these days. The rest of the advice is intact. Indeed, one can imagine today’s reporters being told to stay clear of Balochistan and CPEC as well.
The state’s efforts to eradicate dissent continue.
A heavy-handed approach also seems unnecessary in an era when co-option works as effectively. The state has learned how to bring dissenters on side by funding projects, facilitating careers, arranging lucrative contracts, providing access in the form of scoops and high-profile interviews, and inflating salaries. Few will bite the hand that feeds them. This is an unnerving shift towards first-world narrative manipulation, much like lobbying, and difficult to pin down as a form of censorship. And Pakistan will lack the tools to counter it — such as transparency, right to information, and media literacy — for decades to come.