By Hassan Javid
In the fictional totalitarian state of Oceania, the setting for George Orwell’s 1984, everyday life is permeated with doublespeak – the use of language by the media and those in power to promote a particular agenda by distorting reality through the selective use of facts and outright lying.
Doublespeak is fundamental to the spread of doublethink, whereby people start to believe in two mutually contradictory propositions. This is best encapsulated in the slogan of Ingsoc Oceania’s ruling party, ‘War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength’. Disagreement with any of this, even unspoken, is called thoughtcrime, which is treated as an extremely serious offence in Oceania.
It is now commonplace to compare contemporary authoritarian regimes with Ingsoc and Oceania and while the comparisons might often be overwrought, the changing media landscape and the technologically sophisticated mechanisms through which opinions can now be shaped make Orwell’s warnings about doublespeak and doublethink more prescient than ever. At a time when mainstream media outlets are inexorably being replaced by the fragmented cacophony of the internet’s endless echo chambers, and where the capitalist imperative for profit often puts greed and ratings before any duty to investigate and report the truth, misinformation and so-called ‘fake news’ are easier to spread than ever before.
When the infamous Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) finally became law in Pakistan in 2015, critics repeatedly warned of how the powers it granted the state could easily be abused. While the law was justified by the need to counter genuine electronic crime and also crackdown on the activities of terrorists and other violent actors, it was clear from the outset that the law could also be used to target all kinds of political beliefs and dissent online. Indeed, it could be argued that the passage of the PECB was a watershed moment precisely because it heralded the Pakistani state’s recognition, and mastery, of cyberspace; what had previously been a relatively anarchic and free realm of expression would now be surveilled and police, with the state making use of technical tools and a degree of technological savvy it had previously lacked. Earlier utopian visions of a new generation of millennials using technology to disrupt the power of the gerontocracies of the world gave way to the realisation that those same weapons could be turned against them.
This point has been made before but is worth repeating because of the extremely disturbing patterns of events that has unfolded since the start of this year.
The feared crackdown on freedom of speech that began with the abduction of five bloggers in Islamabad, allegedly picked up by state agencies, has only worsened over the past few weeks as yet more media personnel have been subjected to threats, intimidation, and incarceration for simply doing their job and expressing opinions that either question or contradict that official narrative being peddled by the state. Lists of journalists, bloggers, and anchors hauled before the authorities to explain their statements have been circulating on social media, and there are almost daily reports of people being punished for Facebook posts, tweets, and other forms of online expression that are either deemed to be blasphemous or a danger to Pakistan’s national security. One suspects that at this rate, these two types of offence might simply cease to be different.
The dangers of the new media landscape once again became apparent over the past week; as people across Pakistan celebrated Eid, hundreds of people in Parachinar sat in protest against a state that they argued had neglected and ignored them for too long. After two explosions ripped through the town on the 23rd of June, the latest in a chain of terrorist attacks that had claimed hundreds of lives over the past few years, the people of Parachinar decried the indifference of the state to their well-being, alleging that their well-founded security concerns had been repeatedly ignored, and that certain elements of the security forces deployed in the area had engaged in systematic discrimination against them, culminating in an incident where some FC personnel reportedly fired on peaceful protestors in the city.
The sit-in in Parachinar finally ended on Friday after a visit to the town by the Chief of Army Staff but one of the more notable and sinister aspects of this entire saga is the way in which it received hardly any media attention. The mainstream channels and newspapers, with some exceptions, largely chose not to run stories on Parachinar, and much of the information regarding what was happening came from the efforts of a few activists who made it a point to publicise the protests on social media. However, the reaction to this was revealing; the activists who were reporting from Parachinar were accused of fomenting sectarianism by highlighting how the attacks had targeted a predominantly Shia community, and were also said to be marching to the tune of nefarious foreign powers hoping to spread discord in Pakistan. A press release from the ISPR on 28th June said as much itself, suggesting that viewing the events in Parachinar through a sectarian lens amounted to unwittingly abetting hostile foreign powers.
There are a number of issues that need to be addressed when it comes to Parachinar. While better late than never, it is worth asking why more serious efforts were not previously made to address the security concerns of the town’s residents. It is also worth asking why allegations of misconduct by the FC were not taken more seriously over the past few months. Also notable is the complete lack of any noticeable role being played by the civilian government beyond mouthing the using platitudes and engaging in the ritual of promising victims and their heirs monetary compensation. All of this is important, but it is worth considering how and why the very act of contemplating a sectarian motive behind the blasts can come to be seen as a potentially treasonous activity.
There is little reason to doubt that Pakistan faces serious external challenges, but this notion has too often been deployed to deflect attention from the demons that plague the country internally. Are there militant, extremists organisations in Pakistan that are avowedly sectarian in nature? Yes. Have they been engaged in targeting and killing minorities in the past? Yes, and unashamedly so. Is there reason to believe they still operate and possess the capacity to launch attacks in different parts of the country? Absolutely. Whatever the role might have been of hostile agencies in Parachinar and other parts of Pakistan, pretending that sectarianism and sectarian organisations do not exist in Pakistan independently of these foreign machinations is simply ludicrous. Suggesting otherwise, and punishing people for disagreeing, is not just wrong, it is counterproductive. If anything, promising to crush sectarianism in all of its forms is a better way to foster unity than making empty statements about solidarity.
Despite this, what we have instead are contemporary demonstrations of doublespeak and doublethink. There is no sectarianism. There are no sectarian organisations. There is no violence, there is only peace. To suggest or even believe otherwise is to engage in thoughtcrime.