Freedom of expression

M Mahmood Khan

THIS ‘cocktail column’ covers the society aspects, military culture, adventures and carries a little touch of nostalgic feelings of a veteran who had spent a long time of his life in an unprecedented environment in the Himalayan region. Readers have to draw the lessons/point of interest ‘between the lines’ as paucity of space is a hurdle to go into details. The title of column relates to a very important aspect of life in a civilized society which has international recognition and obligations also. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold an opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. In Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf (a military ruler) , had brought revolutionary reforms to bless the public with awareness and bring the country media at par with international standards .
Thereafter, a mushroom growth is seen where opinion makers/builders are working round the clock, free of restrictions/censorships. However, in the cases where the opinion is ‘sold’ against the interest of the national security, it should be rightly restricted by the civilian government as well as the guardians of geographical and ideological frontiers of Pakistan. In this regard, nowadays, there is a general perception in some quarters that freedom of expression/opinion has been restricted by “secret hands” pointing towards security agencies, which may not be true always, as many of the similar “perceptions” have proved to be false (recent incident of Chinese Consulate firing at Karachi by three terrorists is a fresh case wherein the killed terrorists have been recognized as those “ Missing Persons” of whom some media persons and human rights activists have been alleging our security forces for their detention) .
For serving over 23 years in the armed forces, I believe that freedom of opinion in this institution is much better than any of the institution of Pakistan. The service environment of this institution build the human character in line with the national aspirations and the tenets /dictates of our beloved religion Islam, where matters of life (Ma’amlat) have more weightage (respect of human rights , brotherhood , pardoning and tolerance , coexistence , patience and justice). The working environment here is brotherly in true sense where love and care is found in abundance as enshrined in our religion. For instance, if one gets injured in some operation, the pain of his injury is equally felt by his fellows even they have no blood relations. This brotherhood is further augmented while being in operational areas, especially the Azad Kashmir & Gilgit-Baltistan, where the officers and soldiers remain together throughout the day & night, fighting against heavy odds.
This stay although is for two or three years but is remembered throughout the life and is termed as “Hard Area Association”. I remember that once I was serving with troops in field area in the mountains of Pir Panjal Range, where the weather, ground and the operational environments were very hostile but this association of brotherhood and love, prevailed upon. During this period, once I remained room bound for complete one day because of heavy snow fall with high speed blizzards (snow storms) which almost put me live in the grave as my room got buried under munds of snow; accumulated by the snow storm, where I could only get the oxygen through the 20 feet long exhaust pipe of the fire place (chemny). In fact, that long pipe helped my subordinates to locate me as the blizzard had disturbed the identification marks even. As no food could reach me in routine, I consumed emergency rations (dry fruits etc) during the hours of isolation. In this situation if any brother speaks ill of armed forces, the people sitting on these snow capped peaks, will certainly be demoralized which should be overtly discouraged at all levels.
Freedom of expression, opinion and speech in military culture prevails in true sense. I have found that opinion is respected; regardless of its credibility or liking/disliking. In one of the very high profile seminars, where Corps Commander General Ali Kuli Khan was the chief guest), I stood up and asked a bit sour question from the conducting officer (Force Commander Northern Areas). The conducting officer although remained cool but gauging my sentiments, he wanted that I should wind up; perceiving that I may cross the ‘red line’ but he was stopped by the Corps Commander who directed him for continuation of my question till my complete satisfaction. To the pleasant surprise of audience, the Corps Commander appreciated my viewpoint, saying that: “we must respect such suggestions /opinion which are related to the welfare of human beings ” … (what a great military culture indeed). On the other hand in civil society, at times the questions (even justified) are not liked by some authority or a political figure where the questioner might have to face serious consequences. Just a couple of months ago, in one of the public meetings in Azad Kashmir, a journalist asked a question from the Prime Minister of the State about the sheer violation of merit in one case, the journalist was not only snubbed in public by the Prime Minister but was also threatened to send behind the bars.
— The writer, a Major Retired, is freelance columnist based in AJK.

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