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THE World Report 2022, compiled by Human Rights Watch, paints a disturbingly grim picture of civil rights abuses in Pakistan and increasing persecution of religious minorities and marginalised groups next door in India. In its chapter on Pakistan, the US-based group noted with concern that Pakistani authorities “expanded their use of draconian sedition and counter-terrorism laws to stifle dissent and strictly regulated civil society groups critical of government action or policies”.

The report went on to say that in 2021, the Pakistani government intensified efforts to control the media, harassed and at times detained independent-minded journalists and vocal civil society activists. Media houses were pressured to lay off journalists critical of the government while those refusing to toe the line were squeezed financially and through other means. These tactics amounted a disturbing contraction in the space for civil and democratic debate in the country last year.

Several national and international media watchdog bodies and civil rights organisations have been frequently highlighting the deteriorating state of affairs. Unfortunately, the government has always ducked criticism of its repressive policies and instead shifted the blame back onto media and civil rights activists, repeatedly labelling them anti-state. Not only that, a few months ago, the government attempted to bring out legislation to regulate the media by assuming draconian powers to erase dissent. Only after stiff resistance from media bodies did it relent and back off.

The report also touched upon increasing incidents of violence against women and girls and religious minorities. Incidents of forced conversion of religious minorities and attacks on their places of worship also continued with the government failing to take appropriate legislative measures to protect them. Moreover, as the report very rightly pointed out, Pakistan has failed to enact legislation to criminalise torture, despite its obligation to do so as a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture.

Clearly, there is much the government can do to create an environment free of repression and coercion so that democracy is strengthened. Meanwhile, the situation across the border with reference to religious minorities, Dalits and tribal populations is also dire, as noted in the HRW report. Impunity for the security forces has resulted in a slew of extra-judicial killings and huge swathes of the population remain in fear of rampaging Hindu supremacist mobs. Sadly, autocratic tendencies in the corridors of power continue to bring misery to the citizens of both countries.

Published in Dawn