IT is alarming how in the aftermath of the Faizabad sit-in in November, a discussion regarding the infringement of citizens’ rights has been conspicuously absent. The state apparatus blacked out news channels on TV, suspended social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, suspended mobile phone signals in selected areas, and failed to reopen essential road routes. These uncalled for acts were a blatant violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and the right to information as guaranteed by Article 15, 19, and 19-A respectively of the Constitution.
These actions seem symptomatic of the government’s legitimate paranoia relating to attempts to derail democratic process, but it is unacceptable for a democratic government to agree to make the rights of citizens the collateral damage of misplaced security strategies.
The reasoning behind the media and social media blackout appears to have been to avoid coverage of the government’s proposed action against the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah protesters, and to restrict the incitement of hatred by them. This is a problematic approach for several reasons.
Media blackouts give rise to rumour and panic.
First, citizens have the right to know what is happening in their country on a critical issue. The state cannot play a paternalistic role whereby it decides what information should and shouldn’t be consumed by the citizens.
Second, blacking out information when it is so readily available otherwise is counterproductive and can create panic amongst citizens. It also makes them vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation as in the absence of the usual and more reliable sources of information, rumours abound.
Third, the government must take action against groups for hate material rather than taking away access to news channels and social media from citizens. Further, the government’s information apparatus such as the information ministry should be alert and capable of issuing timely statements to counter perceived propaganda instead of attempting to black it out.
Fourth, the blocking of social media platforms is useless in the face of readily available technologies such as Virtual Private Networks that circumvent censorship through proxies and enable access to blocked content.
Lastly, the impact of such blackouts on business is immense. TV channels had to suffer losses, and the importance of social media for businesses, especially small ones, cannot be underestimated anymore. The government, if serious about democratic governance, must take the concerns of businesses seriously.
Same goes for the cellular network outages on most public holidays, such as Independence Day, Pakistan Day, Ashura, Eid-i-Miladun Nabi, etc. Action must be focused on militant outfits that plan and carry out attacks, not on law-abiding citizens that have a right to information and access to communication technologies.
Whereas cellular network outages occur a few times a year in the urban centres, this is a lived reality for more than five million Pakistanis residing in Fata. Mobile internet services have remained suspended in all agencies of Fata since June 2016, and mobile signals have been suspended in Mohmand Agency for the past ten months. Similarly, areas in Balochistan close to the Afghan border have also had mobile internet and cellular network suspensions.
The Universal Service Fund exists in Pakistan in the form of billions of rupees mandated for expanding access to cellular and internet services in Pakistan. It is high time the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication acts on its mandate and focuses on peripheral regions of Pakistan as well rather than only the urban centres.
It is rather absurd to have to repeat the importance of mobile phone and mobile internet in this day and age. Especially for the large number of Fata residents who work in the Gulf region and send remittances, the internet is a reliable and affordable way to stay in touch with family back home.
Further, social media is an important tool for citizens, especially youth, of Fata to stay connected with the rest of the country and beyond, and express their views and participate in political processes. How does the government expect progress in education, healthcare, science, and research in Fata if even basic amenities such as telephony and internet services are denied to law-abiding citizens?
It is high time that the state apparatus in Pakistan refocuses its energy on human security and makes it a fundamental part of the national security strategy. What good is spending billions of rupees on security when citizens are denied fundamental rights? It is time cellular network and media outages are relegated to the past as they should be in a democratic society, with a focus on the right to access information and communication technologies while militant outfits are dismantled from their core.
Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2018