THE recent FIA crackdown on two individuals in Rawalpindi who tweeted against the army and judiciary highlights both the power of social media and the government’s intolerant attitude towards freedom of expression when it comes to public officials.

Earlier this year, five bloggers went missing due to posts on social media that were allegedly blasphemous or critical of censorship imposed by the government. While some returned and some did not, there is still no information about which agency held them and what transpired during their detention. Similar incidents involving other social media activists or journalists are said to have gone unreported.

Conversely, after the arrest of the Rawalpindi individuals, who turned out to be PML-N supporters, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the incident and demanded the interior ministry recover the two supporters. He also asserted that the FIA’s role in curbing freedom of expression was an attack on fundamental constitutional rights. Ironically, it was during his own tenure as prime minister that the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (Peca), was enacted. The selective and dichotomous view of the law built under his regime is alarming.

The cyber law’s repercussions are harrowing.

Before Peca’s enactment, there were apprehensions regarding the potential misuse of the law and the powers it gave to the state to interfere in individuals’ privacy. Restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, information and due process were highlighted. But the law was passed enthusiastically by legislators and transparency was offered as consolation.

However, more than a year has passed and the repercussions of that move are harrowing. According to recent reports, sources from the IT ministry have admitted to the misuse of Peca and have received numerous complaints about such misuse.

Whenever new legislation undermines basic constitutional rights, the government hides behind the pretext of national security as a reasonable restriction — an exception provided in the law. Though this may be a plausible argument, individuals expressing their opinions via social media are hardly a threat to national security. It is crucial to seek a pragmatic approach and strike a balance between national security and a citizen’s right to engage in public debate. Freedom of expression indicates that there should be respect for expression and tolerance of expression. Sadly, we lack both.

There is a theory regarding citizens’ role in democracy which puts states into two categories — one under which citizens have state-protected rights and privileges, and the other in which citizens are under complete state control. In Pakistan today, the state policy to limit criticism of public officials or religion-related matters through coercive measures is problematic to say the least. We have focused our governance model on command and control.

Public confidence in public officials is not developed through lack of criticism but on the basis of an open dialogue on administrative control and the functioning of the state, a key principle of democracy and good governance. The role of citizens in governance has been restricted on account of either political fiefdoms and the mixing of religion with politics or military dictatorships. The intolerant, regressive state approach to freedom of expression and citizens’ participation is evident from the criminalisation of citizens’ freedoms under Peca. Such control creates distrust in the institutions of the country.

The continuing crackdown on social media activists and journalists exhibits the arbitrary exercise of power by the FIA and PTA. As reported by the advocacy forum Media Matters for Demo­cracy, a source in the IT ministry agreed that “FIA and PTA are not following the proper and transparent procedure desc­ribed in law”. He added, “For instance, before taking the extreme steps of blocking content and apprehending someone there are at least two steps to be followed, inquiry and intimation, that are not being followed.”

The establishment of a web cell by PTA recently to analyse unlawful online content including ‘blasphemous’ material as per Section 37 of Peca is another interim measure undertaken without making the prescribed rules. However, whether this interim setup will include relevant safeguards and transparency is yet to be determined.

All this leads us to question Pakistan’s recent election to the UN Human Rights Council. The blatant violation of basic human rights in the country is evident from the government’s actions despite its being a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Perhaps the state needs to reflect on its actions before becoming the flag bearer of world freedoms.

Will the fundamental right of freedom of expression under the Constitution ever become a reality or will it always remain a myth?

The writer is an advocate of the high court with an interest in international law.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2017

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