A Pakistani ‘sword of Damocles’ in the making?

Given that it is usually punishable by death, “treason” is a dangerous word to bandy about. When it is applied to journalists, it is even more worrisome. We’ve seen that in Sri Lanka, which is in the throes of a backlash against a U.N. resolution on past human rights abuses. (See “Amid Sri Lankan denial, threats rise for journalists.”) Photographs of journalists who have been critical of Colombo, their faces barely obscured, have been shown on television; one broadcast even repeatedly used the picture of a journalist’s daughter, according to the Network for Rights media support group. 

Now, in Pakistan, Zaid Hamid has filed a petition in the Supreme Court, calling on it to try several journalists, a leading human rights activist, the South Asian Free Media Association, and several of its members (many of whom are journalists as well), as well as several government ministries and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, for treason.  That is a strange group of bedfellows indeed.

In the petition, Hamid describes himself as “Founding President of an Internationally Recognized Threat Analysis Consultancy and Defense Think Tank, Brass Tacks.” That website–basically a homepage and some YouTube links–describes Hamid as “the most eminent and profound security professional in Pakistan having extensive practical experience and exposure in the fields of Information Warfare and Psy-Ops, National as well as Corporate Security Management, Strategic and Tactical planning, Threat Analysis, Irregular Warfare, Electronic Security Solutions and training of security personnel. His expertise is largely through exposure and is most unique and diversified. He is a veteran of Soviet-Afghan war and has a rich experience of the finest guerilla operations in modern times.” He is a regular on many of Pakistani TV’s political talk shows, and has hosted his own. 

Why do this? Hamid explains on his blog:

In these times of war, when journalism become subversion on behalf of hostile powers, then it is called High Treason! Information war and ideological subversion are integral part of the 4th generation war being waged against Pakistan. The terrorists on ground get support from the subversive elements within the media and they all create crisis for the armed forces, ISI and the nation instead of supporting them against the insurgents and terrorists.

While some of the people named on the petition dismissed the move as that of a “nutcase” or worse, others feel genuinely threatened by it. Bringing the case and the publicity it could engender puts people at risk, regardless of its legal validity. Treason is a hot-button issue like blasphemy, and cases of treason could incite extrajudicial reprisals, just as we’ve seen in some blasphemy cases.

The language of the petition is inflammatory and aimed at inciting a public response. As a Washington-based analyst, Sadanand Dhume, tweeted: “If calling journalists snakes and publicly demanding their execution for treason isn’t incitement to violence, then what is?”

The Court hasn’t accepted the petition yet, but it is under no obligation to reject it. As one journalist told me, it can just hang there indefinitely, as a “sword of Damocles” dropping into use if it becomes politically expedient to silence journalists or any critic of the government. The case, as bizarre as it is, is really just another way to intimidate journalists — as if there wasn’t a dark cloud of threats hanging over the profession in Pakistan already

EDITOR’S NOTE: The text of this post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Zaid Hamid’s name.