Why should Abbasi apologise for standing up for minorities?
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA) latest directive – asking Aaj News to apologise for airing ‘controversial’ and ‘sectarian’ views during a Ramazan transmission reeks of nothing but double standards. Many have argued that Hamza Ali Abbasi’s bold step towards stirring, much needed, dialogue regarding the plight of Ahmadis and the demagogic blasphemy laws was bound to have serious repercussions.
And they weren’t wrong.
Mere hours later, Shabbir Abu Talib and Kokab Noorani openly declared Abbasi’s discussion an act of ‘treason’. On national television. Consequently, PEMRA, believing itself to be the sacrosanct upholder of morals banned both shows for indulging in provocative, non-serious and irresponsible conversations on television during the month of Ramazan.
It isn’t the fact that Abbasi’s decorous show – compared to the other preposterousness featured on our television channels – and his attempt to shed light on issues of contention being nipped in the bud that is worrying. It’s the haste, the promptness, the urgency with which PEMRA, an organ of the state itself, has reached out to ban Abbasi’s show, silence his voice on national television and effectively giving in to hate speech against minorities that is terrifying me.
Moreover, PEMRA has also effectively equated Abbasi’s attempt towards stirring dialogue and Kokab Noorani’s hate filled indictment against Abbasi by not only banning both shows, but calling for an apology from Aaj News, which featured Abbasi, as well as TV One, which featured Kokab Noorani on Shabbir Abu Talib’s show.
Of course, any attempt (however small the attempt may be) towards initiating surrounding contentious issues is immediately picked up by the state’s sniff dogs. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan ranks amongst the 10 worst countries on the Internet Freedom Index. The fact that we are on the brink of turning into codified law, one of the worst cybercrime laws in the region, only makes matters worse. Salient features of the draconian bill include:
1. An imprisonment up to three years and a fine of up to Rs0.5 million for creating a website for ‘negative purposes.’
2. An imprisonment up to three years and a fine of up to Rs5 million for obtaining information about an individual’s identification, selling the information or retaining it with self
3. A three month imprisonment or a fine of Rs50,000 or both for accessing unauthorised data.
4. Interestingly, the bill also contains a provision for the dissemination of hate speech. It calls for a five year imprisonment, Rs10 million fine, or both, for hate speech or trying to create disputes and spread hatred on the basis of religion or sectarianism.
The proposed cybercrime bill’s clause calling for criminalisation of hate speech held in conjunction with Hamza Ali Abbasi versus PEMRA blowout brings several pressing questions to mind.
The first, of course, is the fact that PEMRA very conveniently equated Abbasi’s discussion (I’d like to lay extra emphasis on the word ‘discussion’) with Kokab Noorani’s hate-filled rant about treacherous soldiers who must be killed for their disloyalty – subjecting both to the same punishment, banning them from appearing on television and asking their respective television channels for apologies.
Does PEMRA believe that incitement of violence and hate speech is equal to an attempted discussion regarding a repressive and demagogic amendment to the constitution of Pakistan?
As citizens, are we not entitled to discuss and debate matters concerning civil liberties?
Simultaneously, would it be fair to equate a debate regarding civil liberties with venomous calls for violence?
Which brings me to another question.
Will the clause calling for criminalisation of hate-speech in the cybercrime bill ever by used to prevent demagogues from inciting violence? Will it ever be used to protect minorities and oppressed communities? Or will it merely be used as a crutch for wielding oppressive censorship of views the state believes should not be brought onto the table for discussion and deliberation?
With this act, PEMRA has established (more visibly than ever) that, in Pakistan, attempting to have any kind of open discussion on the persecution of minority groups is next to impossible. But it has also, via its demagogic attempts at carrying out censorship, clearly defined a national narrative – one that turns a blind eye to subjugation and oppression and terms any resistance as non-serious and irresponsible.
By claiming that Abbasi’s show was the cause of much anger and sadness, PEMRA has effectively established itself as a body that succumbs to attempts of hate speech and intolerance and carelessly brushes grisly episodes of violence, persecution and oppression towards the backburner.
As I laud Hamza Ali Abbasi for going against the grain and bringing issues of deep significance to national television and consequently bearing the brunt of his bravery, I also mourn. I mourn because this episode has proven that we, as a nation, have been condemned to silence. Stifling, suffocating silence.