The shrinking democratic space

  • Parliament and media under attack


Sustained attempts are afoot to dismantle the democratic system brick by brick and column by column. Despite elections having been announced in South Waziristan, the KP government arrested two candidates it did not like, an action declared by the ECP as “tantamount to pre-poll rigging.” Violating parliamentary norms and time-honoured traditions, the National Assembly Speaker refused to issue production orders of two detained MNAs from Waziristan even during the crucial budget session. To bypass demands by standing committee chairmen to produce two other detained opposition leaders, a biased Speaker went to the extent of suspending the standing committee sessions, which amounted to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. As the National Assembly’s website proudly declares, the committees are the “eyes, ears, hands and even brain of the Parliament”. If today austerity requires discontinuation of standing committee meetings, tomorrow it could be used as an excuse to shut down the many times more expensive National Assembly.

The space for dissent characterising a free society is fast shrinking in the country. A comprehensive attempt is being made to muzzle the independent media. For this a campaign has been unleashed to harass, intimidate and threaten independent journalists, the latest example being the hashtag on Twitter calling for the arrest of a number of media persons with their pictures duly displayed. Newspapers have been told to reject articles by columnists who are critical of those who matter. An interview by an opposition leader to a private TV channel was taken off the air within minutes.

In the latest incident of the sort, three private TV networks were taken off the air without assigning a reason or giving them a hearing. As the Pakistan Broadcasters Association protested, two were restored while one remains blocked, indicating that PEMRA, that was conceived as a regulatory institution, has morphed into a censorship body.

The PTI government would do well to realise the long-term implications of these repressive measures. The Prime Minister must not forget that the independent media had played a significant role in his electoral victory. He has to understand that he was elected PM by the National Assembly, which is the chief bastion of support for him. With a weakened Parliament, he would lose his mainstay.