Today, the ruling groups of Pakistan, including the last military regime, take credit for freedom of expression and the massive rise in media and free debate in society. I am not sure what role these groups have played in this immensely important social development. However, freedoms of speech, association and of electing our representatives are a sign of progress. While we do lot of whining about the many failures of our society, one among the many things that we can be rightly proud of is the freedom of expression that our electronic and print media enjoy today.
Some of us may have questions about the character of these freedoms and may raise cynical questions about this claim. However, such developments and social conditions are never absolute; they are relative.
The point I wish to argue is that the freedoms that we have, have not been achieved without struggle, and the efforts and sacrifices of our journalists, public intellectuals and dedicated party workers. Many of these individuals who are not known, recognised or socially visible, have struggled through their careers and suffered gravely to get freedom — one of the fundamental human rights principles accepted in this society.
For decades, the ruling classes associated with hybrid military regimes and even democratic governments intimidated and suppressed freedom of expression ruthlessly. The progress we have made since, owes a lot to men and women associated with the movement for rights, more specifically with freedom of the media.
Before we forget those who have gone unsung, we must acknowledge their sufferings and sacrifices. I am not sure if the younger generations of Pakistan and even those who are associated with the media today, know that four journalists were flogged during Ziaul Haq’s military regime for speaking up against the imposition of martial law. One of the ways I, at least, can express my gratitude is by keeping alive the memory of those who have struggled for freedom. They are Nasir Zaidi, Iqbal Jaffery and Khawar Naeem Hashmi.
They came from struggling families, had limited or no means, but were filled with the spirit of idealism. Unlike the youth of today, they did not idealise material progress and comfort. In fact, they idealised freedom of expression and political rights. They were willing to take risks, including being whipped by a repressive military regime. Imagine, just imagine, the violent impact of these merciless public floggings on frail bodies. We are fortunate that all of them are with us, quietly working in their little corners for our collective freedoms.
They are our true heroes, for those who consider freedom as a mark of civilization, human progress and civility of a society.
While we celebrate freedom, the oppressive groups associated with power and those associated with militancy — motivated by ethnic, religious or political reasons — continue to target journalists. Pakistan might top the list of countries where the largest numbers of journalists have been murdered, tortured and kidnapped. Seeking and preserving freedoms requires not only constant vigilance by civil society, but in transitional societies where many social and political contestations remain unsettled, requires courage to speak and write according to one’s conscience.
Before fake claimants take credit for freedom, we need to pay homage to the journalists, poets, social activists and public intellectuals who have been advancing the cause of freedom of media and expression even in the face of difficulties, constraints and at an enormous personal price.
The Express Tribune