By Tanvir Ahmad Khan
June 08, 2011
The horrifying murder of Saleem Shahzad is a powerful reminder that Pakistan has become a highly dangerous country for journalists and, perhaps, all those who go beyond the authorised versions of various parties engaged in a deadly conflict raging in the country. The return of democracy has not stopped our descent into barbarism; in fact, violence against media people has noticeably increased. No longer confined to the murky world of tribal badlands it has established itself all across the country. As the distinguished novelist Mohsin Hamid notes, Pakistan is being silenced.
Another writer, Vaclav Havel, the dissident intellectual who became Czechoslovakia’s president, once wrote that in every one there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Life, he argued, “moves towards plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, in short, toward the fulfilment of its own freedom”. In the increasingly polarised world of Pakistan there is a willful denial of all the norms of a civilised existence that Havel flagged in that essay. One of the several victories the terrorist aims at is that the state and society also embrace his choice of wanton brutality. We have hardly any evidence as yet who perpetrated the terrible atrocity on Saleem Shahzad but the perception that the State of Pakistan is in the business of controlling the media has already led to unsubstantiated allegations against its security apparatus. It is a view that easily gets amplified on the international scene.
In Pakistan’s case, the greatly expanded print and electronic media is passing through an intense competitive phase; it can survive only by providing instant explanation of matters which arouse popular concern. There is the hunger for truth but the market forces also demand more and more disclosure. Even as the media shapes the attitudes of the people, the people shape the media. There is an unprecedented premium on investigative journalism. Its exponents often find it self-intoxicating and venture further and further into it. Saleem Shahzad was easily one of them.
As a compelling story, Afghanistan is thirty years old. But few people had followed the trail that mapped the degeneration of the anti-Soviet Afghan struggle into murder and mayhem in Pakistan itself more assiduously than him. In a recent post on Facebook, Saleem Shahzad advised his friends to read his book. He had walked into the inner heart of terror without considering how many enemies he could make across the dividing lines. The last time I saw him was when he visited the Institute of Strategic Studies not long ago. He had an easy smile and he carried his prodigious knowledge of the troubled north-west without an iota of professional arrogance. He looked just too robust to allow thoughts of fatal dangers.
He is gone but the struggle for freedom of expression will go on. In Pakistan, there has all along been a special self-awareness in the media of being the only effective torch bearer of truth. From the early years when larger-than-life personalities like the great poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz took up journalism to assume this responsibility to the present day, there has been a continuous tradition of trying to live up to this high calling. The natural instinct of a true journalist is to tell it all. If the state wants him to exercise restraint on sensitive issues of national security, it would have to develop sophisticated means of conveying its message. Amongst the means would be a compact to protect the media and the people who work in it.
The writer is a former ambassador and foreign secretary.
Source: The News, Islamabad