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What is the cost of free speech in Pakistan?

Source: Creative Commons

What is the biggest price you have had to pay for speaking your mind? For one Pakistani journalist, it turned out to be far more costly than he had ever imagined.

Taha Siddiqui, a prominent Pakistani journalist, who escaped an abduction attempt by armed men in the capital city early this year, Pakistan was made on the values of truth and the need to be free. However, he laments that he had to leave his country because he was not free to say what he wanted.

Today, Siddiqui lives in exile in France, after having relocated to Paris in February 2018.

“We owe the truth to our next generations since the syllabi they are taught lacks accurate historical information. Politicians, who owe us the truth, tell us nothing and the internet and media are controlled.”

Born in Saudi Arabia, when Siddiqui first migrated to Pakistan as a 17-year-old, he says he had expected a lot more from Pakistan [freedom of speech and expression-wise].

Over the time, he says, he realised that freedom in Pakistan was limited and within a certain framework. He says he is a living example of this. He had to pay a huge price for free speech and activism – being forced to stay out of his country with his wife and a toddler – all alien to the new system and language.

“I was often told [by friends, colleagues and some government and Army officials] to stay quiet and tone down if I did not want trouble,” he told SBS Urdu.

In June last year, I was summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency under the anti-terrorism law.

“What has journalism to do with terrorism?” he asks.  

For me, freedom is the ability to do what you want; the ability to say what you want without any fear: Hussain Nadim, scholar

Hussain Nadim is the director of the South Asian Study Group at the University of Sydney in Australia and says that individuals should not have any pressure or force from the State or another individual (s).

According to him, freedom is a philosophical concept with different variations in reality. This can have different meanings for individuals and countries in different stages and courses of life, respectively, he adds.

“For me, freedom is the ability to do what you want; the ability to say what you want without any fear.”

“What has journalism to do with terrorism?” Taha Siddiqui asks.  

Freedom of speech and press, Nadim says, has been politicalised in Pakistan and around the world. If viewed with a western lens, which he believes it is, then the situation in Pakistan looks as dire as that in China or Iran. For Nadim, who is also a columnist for a Pakistani English newspaper, “Pakistan is a mix of both.”

Noreen Zehra, a senior producer at Geo News in Pakistan, agrees with Nadim, saying that the evaluative criteria for freedom are very different and relative to countries.

“If you compare Pakistani media to that in China and Iran, then yes, we are a very free media. But if you compare media in Pakistan with media in a Scandinavian country, you’ll get the answer, too.”

Freedom of speech vs. hate speech

Nadim says he has written extensively for Pakistani media but has never faced any pressure to censor. There may be times when this is needed, but only when it is to protect the journalist, he adds.

“There is a very fine line between freedom of speech and the freedom to preach hate. When this line is crossed [by media], automatically State institutions are alerted. This starts the problems.”

There is a need to draw a line for where to start and where to stop, he adds.

While Siddiqui agrees with Nadim on this, yet disagrees to an extent.

He cites the internet as an example and refers to the online content available on the websites run by extremists groups in Pakistan.

“On the other hand, religious and ethnic minority groups that talk about the rights of the Baloch, Kashmiris, Gilgit-Baltistan, etc are banned, so are news websites and blogs that are critical of the government and other institutions.”     

Siddiqui launched Safe Newsrooms on the World Press Freedom Day on May 3 to raise issues faced by journalists and other writers in pursuit of free speech, expression and activism. It was banned in Pakistan by the Pakistani Telecom Authority for what he says they referred to as “containing prohibited content”.

He says there’s a dual policy in Pakistan when it comes to extremist views and progressive and critical content.

Evolution of democracy and press freedom

Nadim gives the examples of the Australian media, which he says is one of the most sophisticated and well-balanced media in the world. He finds their [journalists’] press coverage, ability to talk without prejudice and withstand pressure, amazing. This, he feels, is the result of democratic evolution.

“A society goes through this process. Ideas like freedom of speech and democracy cannot be thrown on to a society.”

He says a lot of wrong things and political scorings are happening in the name of freedom of speech and democracy. It will take 10 to 15 years before people [in Pakistan] have enough awareness to point out violations of rights and free speech.

“There is no wrong or right direction. There is only one direction that is the straight direction.”

A society goes through this process. Ideas like freedom of speech and democracy cannot be thrown on to a society: Hussain Nadim 

Zehra cannot agree more.

She says freedom of speech and awareness is a natural process. Globalisation and technological advances (social media for instance) have brought a wave of freedom of speech with it. Pakistan, she says, got on top of this wave in the early 2000s when the country had its media boom.

She says Pakistan is still in its infancy stage when it comes to democracy and freedom of speech and press. People, she says, are still learning to tolerate. This has been because of social media.

“Freedom for anyone is as important as the need to breathe. If people cannot say what they want, they may feel suffocated.”

She says most people in Pakistan cannot tolerate dissent.

“There is a collective approach to everything. People want everyone else to think and function the way they think and like to function.”

The most sensitive topic to talk about in Pakistan?

For Zehra, there is no one answer to this.

Quoting Voltaire as saying "to learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise," she says this is not hidden from anyone in the country.

"Pakistan is still in its infancy stage when it comes to democracy and freedom of speech and press. People are still learning to tolerate." Broadcast news producer Noreen Zehra

“While some issues are not talked about due to public sensitivity such as religion as this can trigger vandals, on an organised level, it is not hidden that there are certain ‘holy cows’ and institutions that do not take any kinds of criticism.”

Journalists in Pakistan, she says, are however free to criticise the government and politicians.

Siddiqui agrees in entirety. He says religion and some institutions cannot be questioned or criticised, while criticising politicians is not only allowed but also accepted.

You can also listen to SBS Urdu's Live Radio Talkback on "what freedom means to you?" and listen to what our callers had to say.