I vividly remember the cold morning in Lahore when I was first asked to choose between reporting the truth and staying alive. “Is this reporting more important to you than your life? Make a choice now,” an unknown caller with “no caller ID” told me.
Just hours before, I had published a news report about government-enforced media censorship during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s 2019 visit to Pakistan. The threat was frightening, but I shrugged off the warning, treating it as a one-off.
Little did I know I would hear this threat veiled as “advice” multiple times for the next three years, each more menacing than the last.
Under the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, journalists and activists critical of the state’s policies were constantly targeted and harassed by these “unknown” figures. While the military was mainly responsible for this clampdown, the civilian government – driven by a vendetta against its opponents and critics – was a willing participant. The PTI facilitated this witch-hunt by using, among other things, its trolls on social media who ran smear campaigns against the victims.
The PTI was heavily drunk on power: Ministers appeared on TV to boast about the “same page” the ruling party and the military were on, all the while threatening their critics. A minister went as far as wanting to hang 5,000 people in public to rid Pakistan of its problems. Journalists who faced physical attacks and assassination attempts were dubbed liars.
Women journalists and activists were a particular target of smear campaigns. Doctored images, suggestive memes, abusive hashtags, and rape threats were the order of the day. The attacks would often originate from government officials’ personal accounts to dog-whistle the trolls.
These attacks weren’t just limited to social media. Many women journalists, myself included, also faced intimidation in real life. However, due to the climate of fear and hesitation to share personal stories, we didn’t speak openly about these incidents. There is a lot that remains untold.
During the PTI government, freedom of the media and democracy as a whole faced a significant setback. This is why when the no-confidence vote against the then-Prime Minister Imran Khan succeeded, many of us were hopeful that the country would now return to democracy. And the first few weeks of the new government did give us reasons to remain optimistic.
In his first speech after he was elected by the Parliament as the prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif spoke about putting an end to the increasing polarization in politics. Given how Khan was famous for name-calling his opponents as prime minister, this reassuring tone of the new premier felt like a return to civility. The cabinet – comprising progressive ministers like Sherry Rehman and Shazia Marri, as well as competent advisors like Shaza Fatima and Salman Sufi – inspired confidence in the new setup.
Moreover, that the Supreme Court had buried the “doctrine of necessity” by reversing the unconstitutional actions of April 3, 2022, made many think that Pakistan was finally moving in the right direction. For the first time in several years, the long-standing dream of Pakistan’s progressives to see the establishment end its meddling in politics seemed achievable. After all, the parties that had recently challenged the military’s dominance were now ruling the country.
But these hopes soon came crashing down.
In a complete departure from their earlier position against the military’s role in politics, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) parties that made up the coalition government were seen appeasing the establishment. Less than two months after taking office, Sharif deviated from his party’s stance of civilian supremacy by authorizing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to screen civil servants before their postings. What followed was a series of steps that undermined Pakistan’s democracy.
The Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz had previously championed the supremacy of Parliament, yet the legislature was subdued by the PDM government to pass controversial bills. Sedition and terrorism laws were used against critics of the military. Political workers were picked up in late-night raids at their homes. Ordinances that originated in Pakistan’s dark dictatorship era continue to be used to clamp down on political activities. The interim government is acting as the military’s B-team, with the caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar proudly saying he has no qualms in accepting that he is the military’s choice.
The May 9 riots against Khan’s arrest were the final straw that broke the camel’s back, after which Pakistan lost all semblance of democracy. Even though the response to the riots and labeling the attack on the Corps Commander’s residence as “Pakistan’s 9/11” may have been hyperbolic, the root cause lay in the PTI’s disregard for the law. The party thought it would get away with such a reaction because it had still not come to terms with the fact that it was no longer the establishment’s favorite. This sense of entitlement is hardly surprising, given that the establishment’s original plan was to keep Imran Khan in power for several years by hook or by crook.
Pakistan is now witnessing the unraveling of Project Imran, which is just as ill thought out as its launch.
Teary-eyed PTI leaders who addressed press conferences announcing their exit from the party following May 9 were given a clean chit, but several young, naïve supporters of the party who were brainwashed by Khan and other PTI leaders into thinking that it was a “revolution” continue to languish in jails.
The attack on the Corps Commander residence ended up giving the military a free pass for its crackdown. The PTI may currently be the primary victim of this crackdown, but it contributed to this latest decline in democracy by breathing life into the establishment’s narrative that Pakistan’s “national security” is at risk and it must be protected through extraordinary measures.
Following the events of May 9, civil liberties in Pakistan faced a fresh onslaught. But instead of standing up to the powers that be, Khan and other PTI leaders chose to distance themselves from the May 9 rioters and did not oppose their trials in military courts. The PTI’s failure to stand up against the military court trials of its own supporters and its refusal to speak up against the crackdown directed at non-PTI entities such as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which recently faced similar oppression from the state, shows that the party has learned no lessons from the past.
But regardless of its continued political immaturity, undemocratic actions against the PTI ahead of the general elections ought to be condemned by democratic voices. Pakistan is in desperate need of a Charter of Democracy 2.0, so the ongoing attacks on civil liberties can be countered and the country can move toward healing.