South Asia remains one of the most repressed regions for journalists and by governments muzzling the freedoms of the press, the region’s democratic gains are in jeopardy.
South Asia, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and growing fast, has undergone major democratic transitions in the past decade. Today, all the countries in the region are governed by democratic systems. With Nepal’s successful toppling of its monarchy a decade ago and Pakistan’s transition to democracy from military rule, the portents have never been so encouraging. Similarly, Afghanistan, the victim of perennial conflict, is also moving towards democratic governance and reform. These developments are ground-breaking given the turbulent history of the region.
Yet, on one vital test of democracy — freedom of the press — the region is lagging. Between 2013 and 2015, South Asia remained one of the most repressed regions for journalists. According to Reporters without Borders, which publishes a press freedom annual index ranking 180 countries based on the freedom granted to members of the press, countries in South Asia rank discouragingly low.
Most of the countries in South Asia have scores in the bottom two tiers on the press freedom index. In the 2015 index, South Asian countries remained fairly stagnant from previous years: Pakistan ranked at 159th place; Bangladesh was ranked 146th; Sri Lanka was ranked 165th; and the Maldives was ranked at 112th place. […]
My op-ed for The New York Times
The appalling murder in Karachi last week of Sabeen Mahmud is a stark reminder of challenges that human rights defenders face in Pakistan. Ms. Mahmud, 39, had devoted her life to creating an alternative to the religious nationalism promoted by the Pakistani state over recent decades, which has led to a proliferation of violent jihadist organizations. She was gunned down on Friday night as she left the arts center she had founded.
In the country’s largest city, troubled by violence and crumbling institutions, Ms. Mahmud created a hub to promote the arts, harness creative talent and foster democratic dialogue. Since 2007, The Second Floor, commonly known as T2F, had evolved as a small but significant arena for pluralist and secular movements in the Islamic Republic. In Pakistan’s deeply conservative, repressive society, this was a kind of liberation theology.
Hours before she was shot, Ms. Mahmud, a tech entrepreneur as well as a social activist, hosted human rights advocates who were campaigning against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in insurgency-hit Balochistan Province. After the government ordered the cancellation of the event, which was called “Unsilencing Balochistan” and was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Ms. Mahmud offered T2F as a venue.
The government is deeply worried about the insurgency in Balochistan. The commonly held — and vigorously promoted — view is that Pakistan’s great rival, India, is supporting the insurgency. Thus advocating for the rights of the Baloch people is regarded as treasonous.
A year ago, I suffered the fate of thousands of Pakistanis who have been attacked, maimed and terrorised by violent extremism. I was lucky to have physically survived but my driver Mustafa was not. An innocent human life lost but at the end of the day, he made for a mere digit. This is the brutal reality of a country where a mighty state appears unable to protect its citizens.
I was once a civil servant and a mandarin in Pakistan’s powerful administrative service. I ventured into international development and worked for the Asian Development Bank. I had secure careers lined up with attractive promotions and stable retirement plans. I gave up these comfortable options and opted for journalism and public engagement, in the naive hope that public narratives could be changed. I chose a path that would allow me freedom of expression to wade in the murky waters of what is known as ‘public opinion’ in Pakistan.
I cannot complain much as within a few years I had carved my space and engaged with old and new media, happily discovering that there were thousands of other likeminded men and women of my country who agreed that religious extremism and xenophobia masked as patriotism needed to be challenged. Above all, human rights — especially the right to live and worship freely — mattered. But I sensed the limits and the dangers. And on March 28 last year, I did pay a price. Unknown men, later identified by the police as operatives of a Taliban affiliate, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), tried to kill me. A rather drastic punishment for my views and what I stood for.
I spoke with Clarion about fighting for fredom of speech when the price for failure is death.
Raza Ahmad Rumi is a Pakistani policy analyst, journalist and an author. He has been a leading voice in Pakistan’s public arena against extremism and human rights violations.
In March 2014, he survived an assassination attempt in which his driver lost his life. Within weeks, he left Pakistan and has been affiliated with the New America Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace.
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project’s Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about Pakistan, free speech and blasphemy legislation.
Clarion Project: You are a writer. What challenges have you personally faced due to what you write about in Pakistan?
Raza Rumi: When you write about growing radicalization and extremism and call for introspection, critique the role of clergy, then your writings are edited so as not to ruffle too many feathers. At times, one is labelled as anti-Muslim and anti-Islam for demanding a rational discourse on religion and its public manifestations.
Earlier, this opprobrium was restricted to verbal abuse and attacks, but now it has taken a dangerous turn with the increase of blasphemy law victims and in my case an assassination attempt.
Though I must clarify that writings in English draw less attention than those in the vernacular languages, I got into serious trouble due to my views aired on the mainstream Urdu broadcast media. My public engagement with media, academia/think tanks and civil society was too much for the extremists (backed by elements within the state) to handle. So they tried to silence me once for all.
The recent issue to have riled up a good number of Pakistanis — including jihadi networks — is the alleged blasphemy against Islam committed by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The imagined gatekeepers of the Ummah and the country in possession of an ‘Islamic bomb’ must protest against the ‘degradation’ and ‘defamation’ of the ‘faith’. Nowhere in that discourse is mentioned how brutal murders by gunmen could be justified, let alone explained.
European societies must not be bailed out for their growing Islamophobia and the uneven integration of the ‘Muslim’ into secular societies. Nor can the double standards on free speech be condoned. Western Europe needs to introspect where it has gone wrong in breeding such alienation and discontent. But that is their problem.
For Pakistanis, and many Muslim societies to get outraged at the offensive material about their faith, is at best duplicitous.
In Pakistan, we grew up with Friday sermons and prayers that ended with calling for the defeat of Christians, Jews and Hindus. In some cases, there is an explicit invocation of divine help for their ‘destruction’. The grievances that such sermons manifest are political, often real, but largely imagined. Mahsaal, a Lahore-based NGO, has compiled a few sermons and one of them dated 2010 advocates thus: “O Muslims, get up and take in hand your arrows, pick up your Kalashnikovs, train yourselves in explosives and bombs, organise yourselves into armies, prepare nuclear attacks and destroy every part of the body of the enemy. The Holy Quran instructs us but since we have not followed it the Europeans have published the cartoons …”. This was perhaps said in the wake of the Danish cartoons saga where we only harmed ourselves by burning public buildings and getting innocent Pakistanis killed. […]