THE use of information and communication technologies for political purposes has had the state machinery worried for the past few years. What has transpired in the last week is of particular interest.
Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and leader of the ruling party, the PML-N, condemned the arrest of his supporters for expressing their political opinions on social media, and called for the government to respect the freedom of expression.
However, the next day, the interior minister announced that the government was planning to ‘monitor’ social media.
Nawaz’s statement is in sharp contrast to the antics of the PML-N government that he headed for four years.
It is this very government that vociferously proposed and fought for the passage of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, the law that has now been (ab)used to reportedly arrest PML-N activists.
When a coalition of citizens and IT industry groups campaigned to amend the law before it was passed, the government, especially the IT ministry, dismissed their concerns as irrelevant and representing a mysterious ‘foreign agenda’.
One of the concerns raised was that there is plenty of room for the abuse of this law to target political opponents and to silence speech.
The irony in the situation today is reminiscent of Nawaz’s earlier opposition to the scrapping of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, which were used this year to disqualify him from office.
The FIR in the latest arrest of social media users has been filed under Section 9 (glorification of an offence), Section 10 (a) (“cyber terrorism … with the intent to coerce, intimidate, create sense of fear, panic or insecurity in the government or the public.…”), and Section 20 (offences against the dignity of a natural person) of Peca 2016; and Section 500 (defamation), Section 501 (printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory), Section 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), Section 109 (abetment of act), and Section 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Whereas the PPC is a colonial legacy that perpetuates the treatment of citizens as subjects of the imperial crown rather than as taxpaying and vote-casting citizens, Peca, 2016, promulgated 156 years later, continues to reek of the autocratic subjugation of citizens typical of our monarchical and colonial past and our interludes of dictatorship, despite having been passed by a democratically elected parliament last year.
It is also alarming that citizens engaging in political speech are being charged for terrorism-related offences, continuing the trend of anti-terror laws being abused to criminalise political speech.
A democratic government should see criticism by citizens as feedback to improve its functioning.
This highlights the dire need for cultivating a democratic culture where the rights of citizens are supreme rather than the entitlement of a paranoid state apparatus suspicious of the intent of its citizenry that funds its operations.
Elected representatives in parliament must refrain from short-sightedly enacting laws that may seem convenient to the government in power at the time as a means of silencing opposition and dissent, but these laws are sure to backfire when the government is not in power, or loses legitimate power in times of political crises such as the PML-N is experiencing post the Panama Papers judgement that disqualified the prime minister and led to him openly alleging an establishment-judiciary alliance.
This brings me back to the interior minister’s statement that the government will come up with a framework to monitor social media in order to keep an eye on not only criticism of the armed forces and the judiciary, but also parliament which he emphasised is also an important national institution.
Whereas it is certainly true that all national institutions are of utmost importance for the smooth functioning of government, the trouble lies with the notion that criticising these institutions is almost tantamount to blasphemy, something that the state apparatus seems to be driving at, especially in the case of the missing bloggers who were also critical of state policies.
The government and the state machinery need to appreciate that monitoring or controlling citizens’ speech online is not only problematic in principle, but fast-moving technology makes it practically challenging as well.
If there had been no criticism of state institutions, then we would have continued to be ruled by military dictators who abrogated the Constitution, and had a judiciary that took oath under the unconstitutional Provisional Constitutional Order.
Because all state institutions have been prone to indulging in misadventures in our history, it is all the more important for people to be vigilant.
A democratic government and state machinery should see criticism by citizens as feedback to improve the functioning of the state, which — and this must be reiterated — functions on the votes and taxes of the citizens.
However, it would be naïve to deny that propaganda on social media through fake accounts and fake news links exists, and, as evidence from recent elections in the US and Germany shows, has the power to influence outcomes through disinformation. However, the solution is not to start a harass-arrest-and-disappear campaign that has the undemocratic potential to silence constructive political speech and encourage self-censorship.
Instead, the government should keep up with the times by a) consolidating a strong information apparatus that can counter false propaganda, b) availing itself of and encouraging the use of technological tools on social media platforms that flag fake news through crowd-sourced reporting, c) equipping people with the knowledge of how to differentiate between real and fake news, and d) instituting mandatory civic education in schools that includes teaching of safe and responsible usage of the internet, rather that acting like a paternalistic state that makes moral judgements for its people.
It is still not too late for the current dispensation to reform problematic laws such as Peca, 2016, so as to minimise the potential for abuse in its broad definition of criminal speech.
Let this be a lesson for future parliaments not to undertake short-sighted legislation, but to keep the people’s interest and their right to speech paramount in order to cultivate a participatory democratic system where true power resides rightfully with the citizens rather than with a paranoid state.
The writer is an activist and researcher, and director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2017