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Space for progressive Pakistan is shrinking fast

Sunday 16 October 2016, by siawi3


by Foqia Sadiq Khan

Dawn, October 11, 2016

“I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” — W. B. Yeats.

SPACE for a progressive Pakistan is shrinking. Those who espouse enlightened values of human rights, women’s empowerment, labour rights, rights of the marginalised communities, ethnicities and areas are finding themselves on the wrong side of the coercive machinery of the state. While the National Action Plan (NAP) was meant to delegitimise extremist values and hate speech, in practice it seems that progressive values, rather than extremism, are being delegitimised. Dreams for an egalitarian, inclusive, diverse and plural Pakistan are being trod upon.

A primary example of this is seen in the often acute challenges faced by civil society organisations due to post 9/11 trends and security concerns. Rights-based civil society organisations have come under attack — particularly those working on issues faced by marginalised sections of society including women, children, minorities, displaced persons and others suffering from discriminatory laws. Space for civil society, civic spaces in general, are under threat both by the state as well as by extremist forces within our society. The intensity of aspersions cast on the agendas pursued by members of civil society has heightened and uses the same surveillance apparatus of the state institutions that is used to check terrorism.

The patriotism of rights’ activists is often questioned.

Civil society faces new challenges of registration, particularly since October 2015 when a new NGO policy was announced. The policy gives powers to the interior ministry and intelligence agencies to review NGOs’/INGOs’ registrations on the basis of their work and financing. But it has since become a tool of harassment, and has led to unfair measures such as the suspension of governing boards. Similarly, it has led to increased ‘friendly visits’ by intelligence officials at various NGO/CBO meetings and disruption of their activities. Registration has become a horrendously slow process, and deadlines for registration have been extended several times. Overall, civil society organisations have to work in an extremely insecure milieu.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister, infamously said that “repeat a lie a thousand times and it becomes the truth”. Malicious, fabricated public trials of NGOs/INGOs have begun to take place in certain sections of the electronic media. In one particular case, a large, progressive and well-reputed NGO was accused of receiving ‘illegal funds’. The said NGO considers it a pure fabrication and is now filing defamation charges in court. Another INGO has also been attacked in the last few weeks in a slanderous manner. Libel laws, which could deter a certain section of the media from targeting activists, have not been practised in an effective manner in Pakistan. A number of rights activists have also been killed— Parween Rehman and Irfan Ali Khudi in 2013, Sabeen Mahmud in 2015, and Khurram Zaki in 2016. Some volunteers of a leading human rights organisation have also been murdered.

If there is one state institution that has received the bulk of foreign funding, mostly from the US, it is the security establishment. Yet, there is never a need for it to have its patriotism questioned or approved of by someone else. However, the patriotism of those who work for citizens’ rights, transparency, accountability, and who promote an inclusive and diverse Pakistan, is always questioned.

Pakistan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2010. Under ICCPR, rights of freedom of expression (Article 19:1, 2) and freedom of association (Article 22) are protected. The Pakistani government might, in effect, be violating the ICCPR by delaying the approval of registration of NGOs/INGOs and obstructing their activities. In many parts of Pakistan, NGOs are required to get a no- objection certificate before organising an event. Often difficult to get in time, this effectively leads to the derailment of NGOs’ progressive activities. Certain NGOs also believe that, in the recent past, hotels in southern Punjab have refused their bookings for meetings under pressure from state institutions.

A civil society forum has been set up to collectively lobby for a transparent registration process to counter the ongoing harassment. NGOs require access to legal aid to deal with attacks from certain segments in the media. There is also a need for other civil society organisations such as the press clubs, labour unions, students’ organisations and bar associations to support NGOs/INGOs. However, most of all, there is an urgent and dire need to stop maligning and forcing civil society to prove its patriotism credentials. Those who work for a plural, inclusive, diverse and rights-based Pakistan might be equally patriotic, if not more. NAP should have been implemented in tandem with the efforts of those who espouse enlightened values for Pakistan. Yet, ironically, space for progressive Pakistan is shrinking fast.

The writer works in the development sector, and has been involved in peace and women rights’ activism.