THE open season on journalists is acquiring a darker edge. When the government itself becomes party to smear campaigns against journalists, an important line is crossed. It means the state no longer believes in its duty to protect journalists and their right to freedom of speech.
On Thursday, when Twitter was abuzz over Stephen Sackur’s punishing interview of Ishaq Dar on Hard Talk and comparing it with ‘softer’ approaches by some Pakistani anchors, the PTI’s official Lahore account posted two execrable tweets. The first was a list of mediapersons who it said were “building narratives for the corrupt”; the second was another list, this time of “brave and bold journalists fighting the war of truth and justice”.
The tweets were deleted after they caused an uproar; a member of the PTI’s social media team issued an apology, saying it was done by a regional PTI account. While that may be so, the tweets betray the ruling party’s attitude towards independent-minded journalists. These are the mediapersons who do not flinch from asking uncomfortable questions — in short, who do what their profession demands of them, which is to hold the government’s feet to the fire. Now, if for just a while, the PTI’s antipathy was there in black and white for all to see. In such an environment, to be a journalist that the government ‘approves’ of is a dubious honour indeed.
The PTI government has from the outset adopted a shoot-the-messenger approach towards questions about its performance. Any negative coverage, however truthful and accurate, is instantly derided and/ or discredited by government functionaries. Rather than addressing the issue and seeing the news report as feedback that could help it improve matters, the journalist is put in the dock. An army of trolls then emerges on social media to unleash a campaign of hate, vilifying the journalist as ‘anti-state’, ‘anti-government’ and even ‘anti-PTI’. Women journalists in particular are bombarded with sexualised threats aimed at intimidating them into silence.
Last year, the PTI’s official account fired off several tweets denouncing as ‘anti-state’ mediapersons critical of the government. Adding insult to injury, the government doubled down by saying that the digital campaign was aimed at ‘educating’ the media, not ridiculing them. That is the problem: the PTI itself has set the tone for this vicious environment where journalists cannot do their job without risking their physical safety and mental well-being.
THE opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement is working hard to make its final Lahore jalsa a success on Dec 13. The PML-N is the host for the event and is utilising all its resources to gather a significant crowd. It is also an opportunity for the party to flex its electoral muscles in its home base. However, the bigger question is: what after Lahore? This is where the PDM is struggling to come up with a unified strategy. As per the original plan announced at the multiparty conference earlier, the PDM is scheduled to give a call for a long march to Islamabad. However, there are numerous complications that might not make this a natural extension of the jalsa campaign.
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman is the strongest proponent for the march to Islamabad and subsequent resignations from the assemblies. Since he has already experienced a solo march last year, and sensed the impact of the event, he seems better placed to make it happen. The other PDM parties also recognise that JUI-F cadres — disciplined and hardy as they are — will be crucial for the success of the march. This gives the maulana significant leverage in terms of decision-making from this stage onwards. The PML-N leadership is also leaning towards a harder line ever since Nawaz Sharif has taken a strong position against the role of the establishment. There may be many within the party who are not comfortable with the resignation option but given the prevalent mood of the top leadership, they may not have much of a choice if the decision is indeed made. However, the PPP has been uneasy with this action of last resort. It is the only party among the alliance that has a government to lose if the opposition decides to take the resignations’ route.
In addition, the rapidly escalating Covid-19 situation is making it difficult for the opposition to keep public opinion on its side. Yet opposition leaders also believe that if they postpone their agitation activities till the infection comes under control, it may be very difficult to build the momentum again. In this tough situation, the PDM may resort to an expedited schedule for its subsequent actions. However, this still does not make it clear how the opposition intends to send the government packing before the Senate elections in March. The extended dharna may create a continuous news event and generate pressure on the government but it is unlikely that it would compel the government to resign. The PDM may have created the right optics for a spirited campaign but after its last jalsa in Lahore, it may realise that its objective of sending the government packing is still not within reach. For that to happen, the opposition will need to figure out what realistic options it has in its political arsenal.
Gulf spat resolved?
WHILE the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council was formed in 1981 to present a picture of unity amongst the sheikhdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, that image suffered a severe jolt in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain cut all ties with fellow GCC member Qatar. The apparent reason for the move was Qatar’s alleged support for ‘terrorism’; behind this allegation was a long, complicated story that pointed to other factors. While fellow GCC members Kuwait and Oman — as well as the Americans — had tried to resolve the dispute, it appeared as if the Saudis and Emiratis were not willing to budge. However, now, thanks to a renewed American effort, it seems there is some forward movement. Kuwaiti officials say a “final agreement” is in sight to resolve the imbroglio while the Saudi foreign minister has also said all parties concerned are “on board”. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East emissary Jared Kushner was recently in the region and is believed to have pushed for a resolution to the intra-GCC dispute.
It remains to be seen if the underlying issues that sparked the disagreement have actually been addressed. As reported, the Saudis and Emiratis were furious with Qatar because they believed Doha was too soft on Iran, while they also accused Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Doha has taken a less confrontational and more pragmatic approach towards Iran, while its support for the Muslim Brotherhood is not hidden. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, despise the Brotherhood for ideological reasons. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were not too happy with Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera, particularly its Arabic wing, for its reporting. But the Americans, who have major military bases in nearly all Gulf sheikhdoms, are interested in ending an embarrassing public spat between states in the region. It is hoped that the dispute is resolved soon for the interests of regional harmony, and not to strengthen a front against any particular state, such as Iran.