Intimidation by the ‘unidentified’

THE identity of the ‘unidentified’ assailants who assaulted journalist Ayaz Amir in Lahore last week was not unknown. One of Pakistan’s most respected newspaper columnists and a television commentator, he was dragged out of his vehicle and manhandled on a busy street in full view of the crowd that had gathered there. His cellphone was taken away.

It all happened a day after his speech at a seminar in Islamabad that went viral on social media. It was scathing and full of sarcasm. It irked the powers that be who seem to be on edge these days. Tolerance levels seem to have gone down in the current political storm.

Ayaz Amir may have been scathing but there was nothing in his remarks that is not being talked about. He didn’t reveal any state secrets. It was the truth, perhaps, put too forthrightly for the liking of some elements belonging to a ‘sensitive’ institution — hence the response in the shape of the crude use of power that we have witnessed so often being applied against those who dare to speak out.

Ayaz may be the latest and a more high-profile victim of this high-handedness, but there have been a number of other such cases in recent times. Distressingly, there are a growing number of reports of journalists and rights activists being harassed, beaten and intimidated. These attacks are invariably traced to the not-so-invisible state within a state.

The attacks are invariably traced to the not-so-invisible state within a state.

His Islamabad speech may have been the proverbial last straw but Ayaz had been warned earlier of dire consequences if he did not restrain himself in his comments on television. According to Ayaz, the person who came to see him with the message sometime back didn’t even bother to hide his identity and the name of the organisation he worked for.

Reportedly, the name and the messages of that official were erased when he got back his cellphone. That just shows the increasing brazenness with which these so-called unidentified elements operate. As per routine, the prime minister ordered an inquiry into the incident and the police have reportedly filed a case against the ‘unidentified’ persons. But this is just a formality. For who will dare touch these elements, even if their identity is apparent as in the latest case? It has happened in other instances too. Some journalists complain of constant harassment by callers using unknown numbers and of being threatened by them. It’s not that it has not happened before but such cases seem to have increased significantly over the past months. Even those who once toed the line are now complaining.

Some of the TV anchors while speaking at a PTI seminar at Islamabad vented their anger at the security establishment accusing its leadership of ‘betrayal’ by changing political tack. They lamented about being used. The so-called patriotic brigade is now training its guns on its erstwhile patrons.

The entire episode highlights not only the consequences of the deep involvement of the security agencies in political engineering but also their role in manipulating sections of the media. This was much more pronounced during Imran Khan’s hybrid rule. Propped up by the security establishment, the Khan government shut its eyes to reports of intimidation of journalists.

In fact, some of the senior politicians even tried to justify those illegal actions. But with the fall of the government, the PTI leadership too is on the warpath with their erstwhile benefactors. They are extremely upset with the decision of the military leadership to step back and stay ‘neutral’ in the ongoing political power struggle.

The former prime minister describes the move as ‘perfidy’ and is now spearheading a relentless campaign against the leadership whom he had once declared as a ‘champion of democracy’. He demands that the security establishment restore hybrid rule. It is a highly dangerous game, and one that has laid bare his undemocratic credentials.

The deep involvement in political engineering and manipulation by sections of the establishment has made the current army leadership and security agencies controversial. Observers have pointed out that the leadership has not faced such an aspersive campaign as the current one on social media. Curiously, much of it seems to be run by the PTI’s own followers who were hitherto hard-core supporters of the establishment.

The whole battle is to push the military deeper into politics. Imran Khan wants the army to overthrow what he describes as an ‘imported regime’ and ‘illegitimate rulers’.

Indeed, the army leadership’s decision to step back from its partisan role is commendable. But it should not just be about staying ‘neutral’ in the ongoing political fray: the military’s shadow over politics should diminish and civilian rule and institutions must be allowed to work unhindered. Of course, the security establishment must support any democratically elected government.

But there should be no return to the hybrid rule. Political engineering has weakened the democratic process and badly damaged civilian institutions. While, the political process should be allowed to work without any interference, it is also imperative for parties to work within a democratic political framework, however flawed it may be. Involving the security establishment in political matters has prevented institutional democracy from taking root.

Instead of pulling the establishment into the political realm, the PTI should learn to work within the system. It would be better for the party to return to parliament rather than trying to blackmail the security establishment. By paralysing the system, Imran Khan has strengthened extra-constitutional forces. He should learn from history that he cannot bring about any change through agitational politics. He is mistaken that it is the security establishment that can bring him back to power. His hope of returning to power lies only through the democratic process.

It is imperative for the military leadership to pull itself out completely from the political power game, and also important for security agencies to refrain from indulging in illegal actions. The Ayaz Amir incident raises questions about the claim that security agencies will not be used for intimidation and unlawful actions.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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