The warning by Major Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the Director-General of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), to the Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) Movement (PTM) of severe consequences on crossing the so-called “red line” was viewed as another blow to the democratic rights of representing one’s position through protest and agitation. There were similar attempts of disengaging the PTM leaders from their audience in the past. A total media blackout, and at times refusal to allow public gatherings, was seen as an excessive measure by the state to deprive the general public their right to know. The people of FATA, as the region was known prior to its merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, have no doubt suffered the most from the war against terrorism and also from denial of constitutional cover that otherwise has protected the life, property and dignity of the rest of Pakistan’s population.
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Even after the 25thConstitutional Amendment, which brought FATA in the ambit of Pakistan’s constitution and merged it with KP, changes in the administrative and political structures have been superficial, apparently because of the paucity of resources and also because the merger is practically a time-consuming process. But for PTM, the state should have prioritised the reimbursement of their lost time, energy, lives, mental and physical health. They have waited a lot. They have sacrificed for long through their lives and limbs to protect the country. They have been put on the front line of action owing to their proximity to the warring Afghanistan. Hence the PTM protest was aimed to accelerate the rehabilitation of Pashtuns and put them at the centre of national priorities.
This image is through the mirror that the PTM has been holding up. There is another mirror through which the state has been viewing the situation. We are told that the image seen from this mirror is not one that supports the genuine concerns of the PTM leadership towards their people or situation. The movement, which initially began in the aftermath of Naqeebullah Meshud’s extrajudicial killing in Karachi, picked up the pace when it attracted the attention of all the political parties in the country, each asking the state to address the grievances of the tribal Pashtuns. This massive support emboldened the PTM leaders and their wish list began to expand. Notwithstanding the plight of the people of FATA because of multiple military operations and lack of economic opportunities, the state was determined to not allow this reality to become another fodder for the international community’s nefarious agenda. Eyebrows were raised when Manzoor Pashteen and other leaders of the movement started talking about seeking an international guarantee for the redressal of their grievances. Going further, they also threw hints of getting the United Nations involved.
These developments, coupled with the coverage of the activities of the movement on the international media especially on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL), a media organisation funded by a grant from the United States Congress and claims to promote democratic values, convinced the military that the PTM was becoming a hostage in the hands of the forces seeking to destabilize Pakistan. Since PTM was hitting hard at the military, in whose hands has been the fate of FATA over decades, the message going viral was of a military that had ruined the lives of Pashtuns from the tribal areas. Slogans were raised against the military. These images, gory to the core, led to the government banning the broadcast of both Radio Mashaal and Radio Deewa, while circumscribing the movement of the leaders of the PTM. Pakistan’s Chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had categorically said that “No anti-state agenda in the garb of engineered protests, aimed at reversing the gains achieved at heavy cost, would succeed”.
If we look at Pakistan’s chequered history of terrorism and law and order situation, especially in Karachi, Balochistan and in KP, the story that forms is one where each province had been made captive, in connivance with the local partner, by the “foreign elements” in the lead. Agreed that Pakistan’s response to the crisis has been confused and at worst belated and dictatorial – but now, in the echelon of power, there is no room for tolerance for any further intervention seeking to undermine Pakistan.
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The danger has never been more imminent because of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). No stone will be left unturned to either stop this project or to put hurdles that would make the corridor if not costly than at least smeared in blood. For many, the curtailment of PTM’s movement may look abusive, but for the state, given the regional circumstances, even a slight manoeuvring of national identity is perceived as intolerable.
In the midst of all this, the most unpleasant behaviour has been displayed by foreign radio network, especially Mashaal Radio. When the Interior Ministry ordered the media house to shut down its operations, on the allegation that it was working for a foreign intelligence agency, the former asked its reporters to either keep filing stories anonymously or leave their jobs. The reporters were between a rock and a hard place. If they carried on with RFERL, they would have endangered their lives because of committing illegal activity. If they declined the offer, their families would have suffered because of the financial losses. Though a few left their jobs, many renewed their contracts as freelancers.
The question is if Mashaal and Deewa radios were actually promoting democratic values and had their minds where their hearts were, why they could not satisfy the government over objections on their reporting pattern. Freedom of speech certainly does not mean transgressing legal rights. In a world where information flow is diverse and easy, and with the advent of “fake news”, it becomes more important to keep a tap on the quality and content of “information”. We are living in times of “fake news considered as authentic news” and never was there a need more intense than now to cautiously look and guard the flow of information.