Understanding the value of dissent

Published: June 11, 2018
Intimidating people who do not subscribe to a particular view is not the answer


Intimidating people who do not subscribe to a particular view is not the answer PHOTO: EXPRESS

Intimidating people who do not subscribe to a particular view is not the answer

PHOTO: EXPRESS The writer is a Senior Correspondent of The Express Tribune in Islamabad. 
He tweets @Kamran_Yousaf

Last year, one of BBC’s Radio shows became news itself. It was about a BBC presenter grilling her own boss for gender pay gap. Mishal Husain was praised for holding accountable even her own boss for huge disparity between the earnings of male and female employees in the BBC. But credit goes to the BBC management for letting such an interview go on air. That is the beauty of the BBC as it has never shied away from running stories that question its own policies. Despite being a state-run broadcaster, it has also never spared the government and its functionaries. It is because of this reason many outsiders consider the BBC a credible and authentic news source. And this perceived ‘credibility’ comes in handy when they report on international and regional issues. Their coverage of the world’s hot spots such as the Middle East is not often impartial. The broadcaster in this case follows the state’s policy. However, they disseminate information so tactfully that an ordinary viewer cannot figure out if it is propaganda or an unbiased perspective. The key to their success lies in the credibility they established by allowing voices of dissent or a perspective that is different from theirs.

Using dissent and self-criticism to your advantage is an art that many developed states have now mastered. That is why successful states are not afraid of critics and dissenters.

India in recent years has also learnt the art of using dissent to their advantage, although of late, intolerance has grown there under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nevertheless, our neighbouring country is trying to portray itself as a country that respects diversity and dissent. It is doing so by investing in media and other means of communication.

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In 2014, the Indian censor board cleared a movie, Haider, for screening. The film was a modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet shot against the backdrop of insurgency in India-held Kashmir. The movie was banned in Pakistan because of its negative portrayal. But far from criticising the role of Pakistan, the movie depicted India and its army in truly bad light. It showed the Indian army committing atrocities and even at times using militants as proxies to delegitimise the Kashmir freedom struggle. The question is: why would Indian authorities allow such a movie for screening that exposes their own policies? The answer is that at times you deliberately allow such voices of dissent in order to achieve larger objectives. What such critically-acclaimed movies do is enhance India’s reputation as a vibrant democracy where you are allowed to subscribe to a different view without facing any consequences. Such an approach lends the state a much-needed credibility to advance its narrative.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan we are still living in an era where we view dissent with suspicion. Our authorities still believe in old tactics. Instead of allowing voices of dissent, they simply seek to block any information they deem detrimental to their interests. But in this day and age, states now have little or no control over the flow of information. The arrival of social media has revolutionised the means of communication. This means you cannot simply control the flow of information and perspective no matter how authoritarian a state can become. Therefore, old tactics must give way to more robust strategies. Intimidating people who do not subscribe to a particular view is not the answer. Pakistan as a state desperately needs credibility to counter its negative image at global stage. For this we have to allow intellectual diversity and views that may not necessarily follow a certain line. True, there may be elements which are deliberately targeting certain state institutions for their vested interests but a state must not feel threatened by a few thousand social media users.


Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2018

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