Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are two fundamental pillars of human rights. For individuals working in creative fields in Pakistan, the struggle to express themselves artistically has even particularly tough.
Over the past decade, artistic expression in Pakistan has taken a great hit due immense pressure from parties and institutions in the country deeming this expression a threat to national or religious interest. As a result, creatives across the country have been subjected to physical and verbal threats, censorships, restrictions and bans which have taken a toll on freedom of expression in the nation. Here are five areas where this human right was threatened in Pakistan.
According to a report published by Pakistani media watchdog organisation called Freedom Network, over 150 violations against journalists and media groups in Pakistan have been recorded.
The 16-page report’s violations include officially enforced censorship, written or verbal threats, killings, harassment, arrests, abductions, illegal confinements and physical assaults, conducted by state and nonstate actors and political and religious parties.
The report notes, “At least 157 cases of attacks and violations were documented in Pakistan between May 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018, across all four provinces, Islamabad and tribal areas. That’s an average of about 15 cases of violations a month,”
The report continued to mention that five journalists from different cities of Pakistan died in the line of duty, and 20 attacks were registered on media organisations in 2018 alone. The level of restrictions placed on journalists and media outlets have resulted in the widespread of fake news, propaganda and a general lack of educational and awareness of political issues and current affairs among the Pakistani population.
Shutdown of Adeela Suleman’s art exhibition in Karachi
In 2019, renowned Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman set up an installation in Karachi showcasing erected 444 gravestones topped with wilted metal roses in the garden outside the colonial-era Frere Hall. The exhibition was attempting to symbolise victim of police extrajudicial killings. The exhibition, titled “The Killing Fields of Karachi”, was one of the centerpieces of the city’s second-ever biennial art festival.
However, soon after the installation was set up authorities in Karachi quickly forced its closure for being ‘too political’. This prompted outrage from activists on social media. When attempts were made to protest this closure, a government official disrupted these proceedings claiming that the installation was ‘vandalism’ and artists should not ‘showcase our dirty laundry to the world’. Censorship of this sort is particularly abysmal as it attempts to bring to light major human rights atrocities taking place in the nation in an effort to raise awareness and bring an end to them.
The banning of movies in Pakistani cinemas
This month, there has been intense controversy and debate over the release of Sarmad Khoosat’s new film ‘Zindagi Tamasha’. Although the director has not explicitly said what the film is about, he has hinted that it touches upon social issues such as religion, gender constructs and blasphemy. Several groups in Pakistan have advocated for the movie to not be releases in cinemas, threatening country-wide protests if their demands are not met.
This wouldn’t the first time there has been excessive bans on films within the Pakistani entertainment industry. Khoosat’s last film ‘Manto’ saw the same fate, with scenes being cut out from the film and groups in the country deeming it too ‘political’ to release. Aside from banning local films, Pakistan is notorious for placing restrictions on the release of Bollywood films as well, either for reasons of religious interest or amid political tensions with India.
Entertainment censorships in the country have deeply hurt the Pakistani film industry. As cinema is an expression of society and human experience, without exploring sensitive and controversial topics there is no way to make great works of art that can reach wider audiences in a personal way.
Banning of speakers from Faiz International Festival
Another unfortunate instance that threatened freedom of expression in 2019 was the banning of certain ‘controversial’ speakers from the 4th Faiz International Film Festival in Lahore. Days before the festival, Dr Ammar Ali Jan and Dr Taimur Rahman took to Twitter to state that their invitations to speak at the festival was rescinded last minute by the organisers for unspecified reasons. It was alleged that state authorities ordered the organisers to remove the panelists and threatened to revoke the festival’s No Objection Certificate (NOC) if they did not comply.
Dr Taimur Rahman further alleged that two other speakers, MNA Ali Wazir and former Daily Times editor Rashed Rahman (also Taimur’s father), were also prohibited from speaking at the event and that their absence was marked by deliberately placed empty chairs on the stage.
It is ironic that this banning should take place at a festival dedicated to one of the greatest advocates for freedom of speech and critics against authoritarianism, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Censorship in schools
Censorships when it comes to school curriculums and external texts is not novel in Pakistan. In 2013, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF), announced the decision to ban social activist and advocate for freedom of speech Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography titled ‘I Am Malala’ from its member schools. The reason cited was that the autobiography was “against the injunctions of Islam and the constitution of Pakistan”. It was decided that the book would not be kept in the library of any of its schools and no co-curricular activities, including debates, will be held on it.
In this way, children from various schools, backgrounds and walks of life were stripped of the opportunity to read about Yousafzai’s struggle for education and take inspiration from her story. Censorships such as these are major blows for the empowerment of the Pakistani population and the development of democracy in the nation.
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