Ruling parties tighten grip on speech

Restraining tactics show that parties haven’t learnt from past mistakes

Rizwan Shehzad   May 29, 2024
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leaders Maryam Nawaz (L), Nawaz Sharif (C) and Shehbaz Sharif (R) at the stage during a rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, on October 21, 2023. PHOTO: X/@pmln_org


The political parties in the ruling alliance, particularly the PML-N, appear to be repeating their past mistakes by attempting to silence criticism and restrict free speech through a new defamation bill, building a new social media firewall and additional restrictions including barring media personnel from talking to lawmakers with a warning that making a video in parliament will lead to the confiscation of their mobile phones.

Alarmingly, all this is happening when the ruling alliance has now become a complicit player in the hybrid system -- effectively taking over the role previously held by the PTI.

Critics and political experts argue that legislation that tightens penalties for defamation as well as the restrictions imposed are a direct attack on free speech and democratic principles, aimed at silencing dissent.

They feel that the restraining tactics of the rulers were based on an “incorrect diagnosis” to counter the populist style of politics.

They say that the rulers have failed to provide an alternative and are not focusing on changing minds through governance to regain lost political capital as well as popularity.

Eminent political expert Zaigham Khan said the old parties have been unable to carry out a proper diagnosis of the way they are losing popularity and find an answer to why have they lost it in the first place.

“Their responses are aggravating the situation,” Zaigham noted.

In his opinion, these parties have come to the conclusion that the whole issue revolves around the narrative—that means social media. Social media is these parties weakness. If they believe if they can build a narrative through the social media just the way the PTI pulled it off, they can actually show the people that they are performing wonderfully.

“They tried to do it and they failed,” Zaigham pointed out.

The expert continued that after failing to find success on the social media, they tried to block the PTI’s space in an attempt to make room for their own parties. “This is what they are doing right now.”

While they have become a part of the new hybrid system or willing partners, Zaigham noted that parallel fights -- like a battle within the system -- the security establishment’s clash with the PTI and the PML-N grinding its own axe were under way.

He added that the PML-N had already decided that the PTI should be grilled further and it would be a partner in all this.

Read PML-N, PPP invite PTI to ‘meaningful’ talks

“The PML-N has decided that it would not create any hindrance if the establishment went against the PTI. In fact, it will fully back it,” the expert believed.

Zaigham said the parties in the ruling alliance were totally misled on how to tackle the 21st century’s populist politics and they had no clue.

“There are several examples in the world where parties successfully countered their populist rivals by providing an alternative. However in our country, the ruling parties are neither pulling that off nor trying to change themselves.”

He felt that the PML-N had not learnt any lessons as it was repeating its past mistakes and sticking to the same style of politics that it was used to.

“In the new situation, the PML-N is losing more popularity,” Zaigham said. “These methods didn’t even work when there were only five newspapers that too controlled by the then government.”

He recalled that the newspapers of the Pakistan Progressive Papers were even snatched by the government with the radio and TV under its control as well.

“People used to rely only on BBC’s half-an-hour bulletin back then, fought back and rid themselves of the two dictators. So if they [ruling alliance] resort to those methods, they are totally misled. It will come back to haunt them.”

Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob said he felt that the top priority of the government was apparently creating an environment of stability so that foreign investment could materialise.

“Democracy and human rights don’t seem to be among its priorities.”

The Pildat president further said he felt that personal liberties might be further curtailed in the coming days if the narrative of the opposition gained more traction.

“It is yet to be seen whether this policy will succeed or cause the opposite outcome.”

Political expert Majid Nizami said the PML-N was currently acting on what the establishment was conceiving and the defamation bill emerged as an example of this manifestation.

As opposed to the notion that the move came after PML-N felt that it was losing popularity among the electorates, Nizami did not feel that the passing of the bill had anything to do with the party’s political capital in Punjab.

“In fact, the bill has been made while toeing the line of the establishment.”

Commenting on the government’s move of building a social media firewall like that in China costing Rs38 billion, Nizami said the move had come after it was felt that the anti-PTI narrative was not gaining success.

“When politics can’t be countered with politics, a plan B is formulated to counter it.”

He added that ban on micro-blogging platform X, allocating budget for imposing restrictions on social media, and the passing of defamation bill were the examples of it.

Nizami noted these moves were in continuation of the State’s policy where the establishment was trying to counter PTI founding chairman Imran Khan’s narrative. “It [Imran’s narrative] should be countered.”

The expert believed that the NA speaker’s move to ban media and Tiktokers from talking and making videos of lawmakers in parliament was also toeing the overall party policy.

He continued that the reason behind the ban was that it was becoming difficult for the PML-N to successfully present the government and State’s narrative to the people.

“As it’s not happening, measures like banning X and imposing restrictions on social media as well as journalists in parliament are being taken as plan B.”

Nizami said the government should focus on building a narrative through governance.

However, he added that as the government did not seem to face any threat for three or four years, it was least bothered about building a narrative through performance.

“The government needs a proper strategy; it should focus on development,” he said.


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