In this week’s episode of the Declarations podcast, host Maryam Tanwir sat down with Munizae and Sulema Jahangir to discuss freedom of expression and internet shutdowns in Pakistan, and their implications for human rights in the country. Freedom of expression, attacks on civil society groups, and a climate of fear continues to impede media coverage of abuses by both government security forces and militant groups. Media outlets have come under pressure from authorities not to criticize government institutions or the judiciary, and journalists – who face threats and attacks – have increasingly resorted to self-censorship. In several cases in 2020, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that had aired critical programs. International conferences raising awareness on human rights and promoting initiatives safeguarding human rights (organized by the guests) have been mired in technology shutdowns. With our guests, we explore what’s at stake and what we can do about it.
Our guests start with some context on Pakistan, which is ranked 145th in the latest Reporters without Borders report on freedom of expression around the world. Although Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, in practice we observe instead state repression.
“There is an atmosphere of fear, especially in the journalist community.”Sulema Jahangir
Munizae emphasises the drafting of Article 19 of the Constitution – which should guarantee freedom of speech – and the numerous exceptions it contains. The definition of such exceptions is so large that it’s possible to claim that practically anything said might violates one of them. The elephant in the room in Pakistan, our guest says, is the army – about whom one cannot say anything. When anyone talks about military intervention – such as in elections – the reports are banned. The new law under which journalists are charged with sedition (the “Pakistan Electronic Crime Act”) stems from exceptions in Article 19. Journalists, in particular, are targets of Article 19 charges, with cases blocked in the Supreme Court. Some journalists have been kidnapped and even killed for their reporting.
“We cannot talk about the biggest player in politics, and that is the military… If you do not have democracy in Pakistan, I do not think that journalists can be safe.”Munziae Jahngir
There exists today an unofficial ban on television, and all the most popular anchors are banned. While this situation is not new, the current administration has been much more brazen toward journalists. The role of the judiciary has changed too, with decreasing independence; today it lets the state get away with an increasing number of charges pressed on the basis of the wide exceptions in Article 19. The political narrative has become very constrained, and major political parties have been banned from speaking on electronic media and even in private events. Islam is another dimension of the Article 19 carve-outs. People in Pakistan are generally very religious, and yet many people are lynched on charges of “blasphemy.” The government has used this weapon too, stoking fears and creating a climate of hatred.
“The judiciary, the army and the administration have made a coalition in curtailing freedom of speech.”Sulema Jahangir
Munizae insists on the selectivity of the government, who does not hesitate to go around the law to help protect its allies. She tells us, for instance, how the government requested she and her team not release the interviews of the Taliban they made, while at the same time the same government was abundantly communicating on its relationship with the Taliban. This shows how the government was trying to control the narrative.
At a major conference organized conference last year by Sulema (featuring 2000 people and 160 speakers), the government shut down the internet. The conference’s closing ceremony, in which usually the opposition leader addresses the audience, was disturbed first by a shutdown of the WiFi network. The organizers had back-up internet cables, but the government realized this and called the cable operators to demand that they shut down the line – and the operators complied.
“It shows how petty they are. There are issues of hunger, schools, malnutrition and you are more concerned with cutting the internet at an event of lawyers with the chief justice in attendance. It shows you how petty the Pakistani state is.”Sulema Jahangir
So what are the options to protect human rights, and what role does tech play? The broader question with respect to tech’s role, Sulema tells us, is one of access. In some areas, there is no reliable internet access. Language is another issue: there 82 spoken languages in Pakistan but social media is almost only used by English and Urdu speakers. Women, on average less educated, also have less access to the internet than men.
“Pakistan is a state made on national security and not welfare.”Munizae Jahangir
Our guests agree that social media is a double-edged sword: they are dominated by men. and right-wing, conservative voices, but are also increasingly used by activists as they are pushed out of national television. Many social movements have been greatly helped by social media, such as the massive Women’s March on 8 March, or the students’ march (in a country where student unions are banned). When events take massive proportions both on social media and in the streets, state-controlled media has no choice but to report it.
“Social media have given rights to people; they have democratized people, they have given a voice to victims, they have given the other side of the story. If you capture the imagination of the nation, you become a story. For Pakistan, I am so glad it is here.”Sulema Jahangir
Munizae emphasizes that social media may also aggravate divides, as many still lack access, but agrees that it remains a good alternative to tightly-controlled mainstream media. It is the only way to get alternative viewpoints across, despite numerous issues. As Maryam points out, social media have also helped the spread of violent content, especially of violence against women; social media can amplify certain misogynistic or conservative views.
So, what can we do to move the needle? It’s a plethora of issues, says Sulema, the main one being that Pakistan has been a national security state. Inequalities need to be addressed, and those privileged by power or money need to understand that others in their country do not have a fraction of what they do. Munizae says Pakistani women, students, and workers must engage in strategic collective action, which has proven to bear fruits despite the tremendous challenges.
Maryam has a PhD and post-doctorate from the University of Cambridge. She has been teaching gender and development at the Centre of Development Studies for the last 5 years. She also works as a gender consultant for the World Bank and United Nations. Since the lockdown, Maryam has been branching out towards neuroscience courses, theatre acting and podcasts!
Sulema Jahangir is a dual qualified lawyer: she is a solicitor of the senior courts of England & Wales and an Advocate of the High Courts in Pakistan. Sulema graduated from Cambridge University in 2003. She is a partner at Dawson Cornwell. Sulema is also a board member of AGHS Legal Aid Cell, which is the oldest and one of the largest charities providing free legal aid to vulnerable people in Pakistan. Sulema practices in many cases with a human rights element including child abduction, domestic and honour-based abuse, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, bonded labour and constitutional cases. She was part of a committee behind widening the definition of domestic abuse under Practice Direction issued by the courts in England & Wales. Sulema has also assisted in advising parliamentary bodies in Pakistan in drafting laws for the protection of women. She is a regular speaker at conferences and regularly appears on television (including BBC, ITV and Pakistani media channels), the radio and in the press. She has both written and been featured in articles for newspapers (including the Sunday Times, Dawn Newspaper, the News on Sunday) and journals on legal topics in Pakistan and in the United Kingdom.
Munizae Jahangir is a broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker, currently anchoring a flagship current affairs show on one of Pakistan’s leading media news network Aaj TV, called, ‘Spotlight with Munizae Jahangir.’ Munizae is a co-founder and Editor in Chief of Voicepk.net, a digital media platform focusing on human rights issues. Since 2004 Munizae has been anchoring and reporting for prominent news media outlets. Jahangir’s high profile interviews include Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister Imran Khan, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Munizae’s first award winning documentary, “ Search for Freedom” depicted the lives of four women caught in the war in Afghanistan. Munizae was honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She is on the board of the Asma Jahangir legal aid cell which provides free legal aid to marginalized groups. Jahangir is a founding member of South Asian Women in Media, and a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.