The American think Tank Freedom House in its 2019 report titled “Democracy in retreat- freedom in the world 2019 “ has witnessed global declines in political rights and civil liberties for an alarming 13 consecutive years since 2005. The report pointed out that the 13 years of decline have touched all parts of the world and affected Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries alike.
The election victories of rightwing populist leaders in US, Brazil, India, France, Italy, Philippine, Pakistan and some other countries in recent years give rise to the authoritarian tendencies. On the one hand, the quality of democracy is on the decline and on the other hand, the authoritarianism is on the rise. The populist regimes are undermining the main stream media, democratic institutions, culture and traditions.
The democratic, political and economic rights are under attack. Even in the western democracies, the trend to criminalise the right of protest and dissent is on the rise. The freedom of expression and media is facing new restrictions. Trade union and labour rights have been curtailed in number of countries.
So the rightwing populist regime of PM Imran Khan in Pakistan is following the global trends. The democracy is in retreat in Naya Pakistan. The quality of democracy is also on the decline under “tabdeeli sarkar.” The media is under constant pressure. Several restrictions have been imposed on the media through the media regulator PEMRA. Media censorship is back, but nobody in the government ready to accept this fact.
The PTI government is using the government advertisements as a tool to control the media. PTI government knows that both electronic and print media largely depends on government advertisements for their survival. The media is experiencing severe financial crisis for more than a year. This crisis has been used to lay off the critical voices.
Most of the critical voices have been disappeared from TV screens of free and independent media. Urdu daily Nai Baat is the latest victim of this policy. Punjab government has stopped advertisement to Nai Baat to tame it. The PTI government is confident that it can control the media through advertisement and Pemra. If PTI and other forces succeeded to tame and control the news channels then they will become the extension of state owned PTV.
The opposition parties are facing arrests, cases and selective accountability. The democratic and political rights have been curtailed. The PTI government is trying to criminalise the protests, political activity and dissent of opposition parties. The use of the police against political opponents continues unabated.
The recent arrest of senior columnist, teacher and ex advisor and speech writer of former PM Nawaz Sharif, Irfan Siddiqui is the good example of political victimisation and witch hunt. The district administration of Islamabad, police and lower judiciary join hands to send a 78 years old senior columnist to jail. He was handcuffed, humiliated and treated like a hardened criminal. It is a matter of great concern that nobody has yet asked the female judicial officer to explain why she send an old respectable citizen on 14 days judicial remand. His arrest on flimsy charges is just a warning for others. A loud and clear message has been sent to all. There is zero tolerance for dissent and political opposition in Naya Pakistan.
The police in Faisalabad and Lahore registered criminal cases against nearly 4,000 political activists and leaders for organising political rallies. The police registered cases against PML-N leaders and activists in Faisalabad while PPP and PML-N leaders and workers were booked in Lahore. The main charge against these activists is that they raise anti-government slogans.
So it has become a crime to criticise PTI government or to raise slogans against it. This is what Imran Khan and PTI did against respective governments for years. This is what opposition parties supposed to do. And then Lahore district administration issued detention orders of nearly 280 prominent political activists of PML-N to arrest them. But sanity prevailed at the end and district administration later withdraws the orders.
The PML-N is facing the consequences of not introducing the necessary reforms in the police. Both the PPP and PML-N lost the opportunity to replace the NAB with an independent commission for across the board accountability. PML-N government used Pemra to black out the entire media during Islamabad sit-in of Khadim Rizvi’s party. It was the PML-N government who introduced a retrogressive cyber-crimes act which curtail the online freedom of expression and restrict the media freedom. It has become a tool for FIA and police to registered criminal cases against journalists and social media activists to silence the dissenting voices.
The democratic space is not just shrinking for opposition political parties but also for trade union, social and labour activists. The police in Lahore booked nearly 250 workers of an electronic and electric home appliance manufacturing factory (Pakistan electron limited –PEL) under the provisions of anti-terrorism act. Their only crime was that they raised their voice against illegal retrenchments and layoffs.
The Lahore police set another example of rule of law and depoliticed police. It happily obliged the powerful and influential factory management without properly investigating the allegations of terrorism against factory workers. The labour department and Punjab government is watching all this like spectators.
The parliament is not working. All the decisions regarding foreign, security, economic and domestic policies have so far been made outside the parliament. No serious and meaningful discussions and debates are taking place in the parliament on important issues faced by the people. The PTI government is continued to undermine the parliament like the previous government of PML-N.
All the major policies have been formulated by state bureaucracy and so-called technocrats. The elected members of the parliament hardly play any role in the process of policy formulation. The PTI government is happy to lose further ground to other state institutions to remain on the same page.
PTI government is facing a serious democratic deficit. Its policies will further weaken the democratic process, culture and system. Its efforts to weaken the opposition parties are not going to strengthen its political position but on the contrary it will help powers that be to gain more space. TI needs to learn from the history otherwise it bound to repeat it.
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17 November, 2019