Thursday, June 1, 2017

Pakistan - Shrinking space for freedom of expression

By Zahid Abdullah
Recent onslaught against freedom of expression on social media should be seen in the context of lack of respect for diversity that we manifest both as individuals and as institutions. We manage financial bankruptcy with borrowed funds and intellectual bankruptcy with borrowed wisdom.
Ever since Pakistan came into being, we have been using both kind of borrowing as a stop-gap arrangement without taking steps to ensure self-reliance in either economic or intellectual domain. We have democracy with all its attendant paraphernalia i.e. constitution, political parties, elections, assemblies and their committees etc. but democratic norms are missing.
We do not have to go far off, in fact, we just have to look at our own homes to see how we treat women. How is the news of the birth of a baby girl taken by the parents and the family? Haven't we seen ‘democrats’ ganging up to disallow women to cast their votes? One of the essentials of democracy is diversity of opinions which should not only be respected but also protected. Forget about higher standards set by people like Beatrice Evelyn Hall who in a book about the French philosopher Voltaire wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. We do not accept human diversity let alone acknowledging the right of people to express diverse opinions.
The range of social groups both the state and the society treat as sub-humans is mind-boggling. Where do women, people with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities stand in terms of exercising basic freedoms and to what extent do these groups exercise power on their own lives? What to talk about enjoying basic freedoms and exercising power on their own lives, when prevailing notions about their very existence in the cosmic scheme of things is in conflict with dictates of basic human rights.
We do not have to go far off, in fact, we just have to look at our own homes and see how we treat women. How is the news of the birth of a baby girl taken by the parents and the family? Haven’t we seen ‘democrats’ ganging up to disallow women to cast their votes? Disability is considered to be a punishment, inflicted upon the offspring for the sins committed by the parents, their forefathers or the society.
Those who never get tired of condemning collective punishment meted out to Kashmiris and Palestinians find FCR and the concept of collective punishment appropriate for those living in FATA. This mindset that defines status of the disabled, women, ethnic and religious minorities defines what hate speech is. This mindset is in direct conflict with our international commitments. Just to give two examples, Pakistan is party to UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and International Convent on Civil and Political Rights. In other words, the state of Pakistan has subscribed to accumulated wisdom of humanity as to how to ensure rights of its citizens but it has not taken steps to change the mindset that manifests itself in our laws, customs and social structures which leads to denial of basic freedoms to vulnerable groups.
Politicians were supposed to be the part of the solution but ironically, they have become part of the problem when it comes to freedom of expression. As they continue marching on the drum-beat of democracy, politicians through their words and actions are contributing to the shrinking of civic spaces at their own peril. Xenophobic trends and the discontent with globalization, which have contributed to recent global developments like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, has set in motion a process which is not only going to be restricting civic, political and economic rights of the vulnerable in Western countries but is also going to be detrimental to such causes in countries like Pakistan.
We should continue raising voices for our civic rights. It is also important that we engage politicians for they are our only best bet in this ongoing saga of the right to hold and express opinions without fear.
We need to engage political parties in changing the mindset that does not let us respect human diversity. If we are able to develop genuine respect for human diversity, we will be able to develop respect for diverse opinions. Politicians need to understand that social media is there to stay and curbing voices of the people in digital spaces is in itself self-defeating because of the very nature of the medium. Conducting business of politics has become next to impossible without social media.
Politicians will eventually realize that they can themselves become victims of restrictions they are imposing on use of social media at the hand of forces that have actually been dictating the extent to which citizens may exercise basic freedoms before the dawn of social media.

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