South Asia

Why Imran Khan's Civilian Govt Seems Remarkably Similar to Musharraf's Military Dictatorship

The administration's attempts to clamp down on free speech at last week's Asma Jahangir Conference in Lahore showed it as anti-democratic and repressive.

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Lahore: Certain anti-democratic and repressive traits of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in Pakistan surfaced last weekend when several attempts to muzzle free speech were made during and after the third Asma Jahangir Conference, held on November 20 and 21 in Lahore.

The conference has been held annually since 2018 in memory of Asma Jahangir, the late Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer, although the spread of the pandemic last year had caused the 2020 session to be called off.

Members of the top judiciary attended the first day of the conference, including Saquib Nisar, the former chief justice of Pakistan, and Gulzar Ahmed, the current chief justice. Foreign dignitaries such as the ambassadors of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands opened the conference with their speeches. Everything ran smoothly – almost dully – until Ali Ahmed Kurd, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), made his way to the rostrum. Then everything changed.

Speech of dissent

Kurd has been known for his blazing, passionate speeches since 2008, when the lawyers’ movement, also known as the movement for the restoration of the judiciary, took place against military dictator General Musharraf who had been in power at the time.

Former Pakistani Military Ruler Pervez Musharraf

Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf speaks during a news conference in Dubai March 23, 2013. Photo: Reuters

When he spoke at the conference, it was with his usual theatrics – voice rising higher and higher, body language agitated. While the audience enjoyed the drama, it soon became clear that Kurd’s speech was too direct and outspoken: one could almost see tension rising from certain people. The chief justice of Pakistan, at whom Kurd’s criticism was directed, appeared indifferent. But there was no doubt that each line that Kurd uttered was more critical than the last.

Kurd’s panel topic centred on ‘The role of the judiciary in protecting human rights and strengthening democracy’. In his speech, he brazenly asked the organisers of the conference, “What judiciary are you talking about?” and then went on to say that the judiciary of Pakistan had one of the lowest rankings in the world.

“Out of 130, we are on number 126! A journalist asked me my comment about this deplorable ranking. I said, are you as a Pakistani not happy about the fact that we are still four places higher than the bottom?” Kurd said as the audience exploded with laughter.

He also said that there was a clear division within the judiciary and that this inefficiency is why Pakistan’s ranking is so deplorable.

Aik general (one general)!” Kurd shouted four times before the audience, delighted by what he had been saying so far and anticipating more jibes at the establishment, permitted him to complete the sentence. Only after Ahsan Bhoon, the current president of the SCBA, managed to hush a group of students chanting slogans like “Hum cheen kay lenge azadi (We will snatch our freedom)!” could Kurd continue, whereupon he said, “In this country, one [army] general was superior to the 220 million citizens”, which caused serious unease among several people in the crowd.

One day later, Kurd was charged with Article 6 (high treason). This is not new for him. He had faced the same charge in 2008 when the police claimed that after the funeral prayers of the assassinated Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti on August 29, Kurd had made objectionable speeches against the state and had incited people against the government. While the 2008 charge was later dropped, it is difficult not to compare Imran Khan’s civilian government of today to the military dictatorship of 2008.

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‘A thing done by rats’

Kurd’s speech obviously went viral, leading to trolls accusing the lawyer of sedition and a backlash against the organisers of the conference. But it was on the second day of the conference, Sunday, November 21, that Pakistan faced one of its worst incidents of censorship in recent times when popular political leader Mian Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was abruptly cut off during the live video call via which he was participating in the conference.

The Pakistan Muslim League chief had been invited to the closing panel of the conference along with leaders of other political parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI).

While Senator Farhatullah Babar, senior leader of the PPP arrived readily, the PTI’s Fawad Chaudhry – ironically Pakistan’s minister of information and broadcasting – refused to come. He announced this not to the organisers, but via a tweet.

“I was invited to the Asma Jahangir Conference today. I was told that the conference would end with a speech by a fugitive accused. Obviously, this is tantamount to mocking the country and the constitution. I have apologised for not attending the conference,” Chaudhry said in the tweet.

But when the organisers did not back down from including the PML-N chief on the panel, the government used baser methods to try and stop them.

At first, cellular services went down two hours before the concluding session. Then when the video call connected, within seconds of Sharif’s address which began with a condemnation of the clampdown on freedom of speech, the call disconnected.

According to the organisers, they had been tipped off that the government-run Pakistan Telecommunications Authority would send people to the internet service providers and tell them to cut the connection. So they had made other arrangements.

“They have tried to block us off, but we are not far behind. We have always found our way round their tactics of muzzling us. Cutting off cables is a thing that is done by rats,” said Asma’s daughter Munizae Jahangir, journalist, anchor and one of the main organisers of the event.

And so a telephonic address ensued. Not much could be heard because the sound quality was bad, but the move symbolised resistance.

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‘Your regime resides in glass houses’

The Nawaz Sharif fiasco was to be expected, although the organisers had violated no laws. While a notification issued by Pakistan’s electronic media watchdog PEMRA had banned any live videos of Sharif to be telecast, the ban extends to television only, not an address to a gathering, not even to digital media.

That the government was uncomfortable about the conference’s open conversations was also felt when they did not allow visas to be given to foreign guests invited as speakers, including those from India. Journalists Barkha Dutt and Jyoti Malhotra and lawyer Vrinda Grover all had to participate online because they were not given visas. Steven Butler, the Asia Pacific head of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was also not allowed to come for the second consecutive time. For the 2019 conference, when Butler, armed with a valid visa arrived at the airport, he was actually barred from stepping outside and deported.

The bullying by the government has not stopped. Fawad Chaudhry and others from the PTI cabinet urged an investigation into the funds of the chief organiser of the event, the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell, known locally as AGHS. This was after the entire event was said to have been funded by the European Union, the German Embassy, the Embassy of Netherlands and the Canadian High Commission. The PTI government constantly issues statements against the conference, calling it a “foreign funded” event. This accusation was often made about Asma Jahangir too – but hardly anything has ever been proved.

Posting a still of Fawad Chaudhry accusing the event organisers of using foreign funding, journalist and author Nadeem Farooq Paracha quipped on social media: “Bhai, pura mulk ghair mulki funding pe chal raha hai. Kya IMF mulki idara hai, jiska head office Jhelum mein hai (Man, the whole country is being run on foreign funding. Is the IMF a local institution, whose head office is in Jhelum)? Your regime resides in glass houses, Fawad Sahib. Shouldn’t throw stones.”

On November 23, a letter was drafted by Aliya Hamza Malik, a member of the National Assembly, who demanded that the following matters be taken up in the assembly: apart from the source of funding, the work done by the AGHS and why the forum gave an ‘absconder’ a place on the panel.

AGHS was formed in 1984 by four women lawyers including Asma Jahangir and her sister Hina Jilani, both leading human rights lawyers of the country and recipients of international awards. The organisation provides access to free legal aid for all marginalised communities, especially women and children, and minorities. During her life, Asma won a plethora of cases where basic human rights were being pitilessly violated, including cases of blasphemy, bonded labour, the right to due inheritance, violence against women, rape and forced marriage. One of these cases shook the nation when a young woman who wanted to marry of her own free will was shot dead by her own father inside the AGHS’s shelter home, Dastak.

The (over) sensitivity of the PTI government regarding free speech and expression as well as a free press has been increasing of late, it seems. On November 22, just one day after the conference, the prime minister himself ordered an inquiry against a senior joint secretary of the cabinet division for posting “objectionable comments” against the ruling party on a social media platform.

The post had allegedly said in Urdu: “A similarity between the PTI and the Taliban is that both are figuring out how to run the government only after assuming power. And the centre of hope for both of them is Aabpara.” (Aabpara is where the Lal Masjid is located).

Pakistan’s governments – not just this one, but earlier ones as well – refuse to understand that it is useless to clamp down on the press. They can try and crush it, but the public still squeezes out and forms its own narrative in other ways.

If the government wants to be perceived as a democratically elected set-up, if it wants people to believe that it is honest and uncorrupt – an agenda that Imran Khan always seems to push – then it must stop muzzling the press and silencing dissent. After all, freedom of speech is a basic human right.

Xari Jalil is a journalist who reports from Karachi and Lahore. She is also co-founder of Voicepk.net, a non-corporate/non-profit digital platform for human rights. She tweets at @xarijalil.