THE silencing of Pakistan is well under way. The National Assembly last week passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill. Despite the charade of public consultation, it remains a regressive law, designed to suppress free speech, control public access to information, and empower the state to surveil its citizens.
The timing of the bill’s passage could not be worse, coming when Pakistan’s civil society is being crushed from all sides, by state and non-state actors alike.
The bill demonstrates the deep flaws in Pakistan’s democratic set-up, revealing the awful irony in which we are caught. Three years after a historic election — the first to see one democratically elected government transfer power to another via the ballot box — we are saddled with a parliament that uses its democratic credentials to legitimise the deep state’s authoritarian tendencies. It’s the worst of all possible worlds, in which Pakistan’s democratic systems erode while a veneer of democracy masks this reality from the public.
One does not need a crystal ball to see how the cybercrime law will be misused. The draconian intent of the law is evident in the tactics deployed by the government to justify its passage. IT Minister Anusha Rehman has dismissed criticism of the bill, saying that those NGOs and civil society organisations that oppose the bill have a “certain agenda” and are operating under the influence of external forces.
One does not need a crystal ball to see how the cybercrime law will be misused.
The government has tried to reframe resistance against the bill as a conspiracy against the state, and an attempt by the West to interfere with Pakistan’s legislative process.
This was most clumsily done by the dissemination of false information, dutifully parroted by news channels, that NGOs had smuggled US embassy officials into the meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on IT, where the bill was deliberated.
These are familiar deep-state tactics: provoke the public’s persecution mania, wave the banner of nationalism, exploit underlying anti-Western sentiment, declare those who oppose to be corrupted and co-opted, the pawns of Pakistan’s enemies.
Once the source of resistance is thus tainted, the deployment of harsh tactics — including, in future, the arbitrary imposition of punishment and censorship under the cybercrime law — is easily justified. What hope do dissenters in Pakistan have when a democratically elected government is willing to do the dirty work of the deep state?
The government’s readiness to undermine civil society organisations is doubly problematic at a time when the country is trying to recover from a decade of brutalisation at the hands of home-grown militants.
The spirit of the National Action Plan — aimed at countering hate speech and sectarianism and checking the chilling effect of violent extremism — had briefly led to the misperception that the state deemed a tolerant, free and empowered polity worth preserving from the ravages of radicalisation. The passage of the PECB and the surrounding discourse proves that is not the case.
The bill’s passage in the same week as the Quetta bombing highlights the perilous state in which Pakistan’s civil society finds itself. That attack targeted lawyers and journalists, the few in Balochistan who speak out against extremism, exploitation and rampant human rights violations in the province. They are not the first voices of resistance to be silenced this way, and they will not be the last.
Sadly, the plight of civil society is unlikely to stir the wider public. The onus for this partly lies on civil society organisations; activism in Pakistan is typically ad hoc, poorly organised, ill-informed and short-lived.
This is the true tragedy of the passage of the PECB — the civil society movement led by digital rights groups such as Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All has been among the most sustained, organised and inclusive, giving due regard to parliamentary process, engaging government stakeholders, and seeking to work within the law. That such a campaign has failed (for now) only reiterates the urgent need for continued civil society activism.
What alternative do we have? Government institutions and the civil service are crumbling. The vacuum has given rise to the likes of Jamaatud Dawa and Difa-i-Pakistan Council. Such extremist groups cannot be the voice of Pakistan, as religiously and ethnically diverse as it is.
We must have voices to champion the championless, to check deep-state excess, to ask for something better. It’s time all of us realised that we too belong to the flailing civil society that we are quick to dismiss or mourn.
Between state and non-state, there must be civil society.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2016