Tightening the Authoritarian Noose Around the People’s Neck

Source: flare.pk

Pakistan is not a country we should feel proud of anymore. It has increasingly become an entity that is acting hostile to the people it is supposed to stand for. This is clear and evident by the recent curbs on political freedom and freedom of speech in the current year reminiscent of the years of the military dictatorship in the country. However, the comment of the current Chairman PTA, who happens to be a military officer (surprise, surprise) is unprecedented.

The PTA Chairman Maj. Gen. (R) Amir Azeem Bajwa, whose name sounds eerily related to the current Army Chief, said that social media in Pakistan should be blocked in the manner of China and the UAE. He recommended that Pakistan should develop its own social media channels to allow for state censorship and censor inappropriate content. Appointed in December 2018, under the able leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, General Bajwa mainly focused on “blasphemous content” to make his case of taking away the right of citizens to use social media to express their voices. If anyone had doubts about democracy being under threat in Pakistan, this statement should remove it.

The Chairman PTA was testifying to the Senate panel examining purported grievances where he remarked that “either the technical abilities of the organization be enhanced or the allow them to block social media websites to stop the circulation of blasphemous material.”  Even though nobody is ever going to explain what a retired general is doing serving this position and one which he is most likely not qualified for, his comments will largely go unaccounted for other than some fringe criticism on the social media of all the places. Nobody is going to mention it on the mainstream media and any criticism on the national news is improbable.

Surely, for the PTA chairman, blocking more than 850,000 porn and news websites are not enough. It is pretty clear that for these state authoritarians, it is not nearly enough. They want to go after the internet itself and if not the internet connectivity to maintain a facade of modernity, they will neuter it to an unusable state-regulated version.

With the launch of CPEC development projects and the rolling out of the optic fiber link from Khunjerab to Gwadar, one of the biggest fears is the Chinese internet spilling over into Pakistan. While thankfully the CPEC projects in Pakistan have appeared to slow down, it has nevertheless inspired the civil and military bureaucratic despots at the reins of administration in this country.

Unfortunately, the narratives these anti-democratic forces have nurtured for the past seventy years have duped well-meaning conservative citizens into believing that their civil rights and political freedoms are bad for them and for the country. Even in the name of blasphemy and national security, there is no shortage of urban nationalist conservatives in the country who would gladly sacrifice the internet as a public enemy.

The greatest tragedy of all is the fascist administration of PTI, a party that was pretty much built by and through the power of social media, other than a little help of our military establishment of late. More than the duplicitous and malicious leadership of the PTI, the people who would be the greatest losers are the urban educated voters of the party who look down upon the traditional and less privileged voters all across Pakistan. The government they voted in might be infringing on their rights but they have a choice to speak up. Pretty soon this little freedom we have will be gone.

Pakistan still has a lot to lose, which it continues to lose every day.

CyberCrime Bill: What Blasphemy Law Feels Like

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I just came across an apparently credible copy of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill that is reportedly passed by the standing committee on information technology, but had learned just enough from the outraging social media posts criticizing it that the Pakistani government is at its worst again. Searches without warrant and internet censorship.

From the looks of it, the bill seems to be a grim reminder why government should be out of our lives in as many aspects as possible. It is also a reminder of the terrible extent of power our democratic structure vests into the hand of the government agencies such as the PTA and how nobody sees that as a problem.

The trouble with liberals aspiring for greater government control in Pakistan is that they conveniently forget that the country is an Islamic Republic. This means that ideologically, Pakistan is just a few shots away from becoming societies such as Iran. This is why I have always been skeptical about policing the internet for hate speech. But still, laws must protect people from hacking, harassment and financial fraud. However, such laws, just like any laws, should remain confined to dispute resolution as opposed to mandatory guidelines for moral behavior.

However, what is encouraging is the public outrage at the bill in the Muslim majority country, at least online. Finally, my dream of seeing the likes of the Jamaat-e-Islami protesting on the streets to prevent a facebook ban could be near its realization perhaps. What is the world coming to?

Among the youth, it is really refreshing to see the passionate opposition, despite the fact that the bill apparently contains many things that the activist folks have been campaigning for years. Of course, that does not include protecting the head of the government, who happens to be a “natural person,” or the state from criticism, or allegedly defamation, but you could expect such provisions to creep into the penal code. Though that is a biased, out-of-the-way interpretation really of the most ambiguous, but pretty authoritatively liberal bill you have seen in a while. But in all honesty, I do not expect the current state regime to formulate any law without providing for the protection of the glory of Islam and the sanctity and security of the state.

This offers some remote idea to the liberal and conservative Muslim majority in the country of what the blasphemy law remotely feels like. The more informed of critics would obviously laugh away this comparison, as they should, but anyone can agree that you don’t see Pakistanis getting outraged at free speech curbs everyday. I would also like to apologize to the drafters of the bill for comparing it with something as terrible as the blasphemy law, but let me proceed with my argument anyway.

The insecurity that you just felt by learning about the Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill 2015 is what most citizens not belonging to a certain religion in Pakistan do every day because of the blasphemy law. I really hope that this occasion is used to extract some empathy for the people whose lives are jeopardized by the blasphemy law.

As for the cybercrime bill, it is important to stay vigilant before the state ends up killing the internet in the name of preserving its sanctity. We must openly and unapologetically oppose the blocking of websites on any ground, let alone religious, political or pornographic. We must oppose the notion of the state deciding moral right and wrong for us. Unless that is the case, we are always prone to lose our freedoms forever. I know it is way too early to freak out about this bill, but we could be headed down a dark alley where columns such as this one would never be seen again on a Pakistani website in the future.

We have had enough activism in this country calling for government intervention. It is time to call for the government to keep its hands off the internet. It is time that we start questioning if offending the glory of state and religion is a criminal offense at all. Thankfully, the Pakistani youth, at least the online bit, is reading the writing on the wall. Since there is not much you can do about the Islamic nature of the constitution of the country, at least you can try keeping government out of things like speech on internet as much as you can.

I still have good faith that our government and parliament will not pass this bill into a law, or at least not unanimously, but you never can tell in a country crazy enough to still have YouTube banned for apparently no sensible reason at all.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.