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War on vox populi

Updated December 17, 2018

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GIVEN the hopes engendered by a decade of uninterrupted civilian rule in Pakistan, the reality is all the more sobering.

Behind the veneer of democracy, what we are witnessing today is a steady erosion of the values that define a system based on the will of the people. The latest manifestation of this pattern was revealed on Thursday in Twitter’s biannual report.

According to the document, between January and June 2018, the government reported 3,004 profiles to the social networking site for allegedly “inciting violence” and “spreading hate material”, and sent requests seeking the removal of 243 accounts. By contrast, during the six months immediately preceding, it reported only 674 accounts to Twitter and made 75 removal requests.

The unprecedented volume of such actions so far this year means Pakistan ranks third highest globally in the number of accounts which were either reported or were the subject of requests for removal in 2018.

That Russia and Turkey, hardly bastions of individual liberty, precede us on this list is an indication of the direction in which we are headed.

Certainly, hate speech or incitement to violence cannot be condoned and is rightly regulated. However, there is a clear and indisputable difference between actions that protect the fundamental rights of the people, and those that aim to insulate state institutions from accountability.

There has been for some time a relentless campaign to muzzle diversity of political opinion in Pakistan, specifically opinion that strays across red lines and from the approved narrative. Individuals and organisations deemed not compliant enough are vilified as being ‘anti-state’, a catchphrase beloved of sundry despotic regimes.

Thousands of people, even bloggers, have been disappeared; some remain missing years later.

The media has a stark choice: comply or be prepared to see its revenue streams dry up. Recalcitrant journalists are subjected to physical violence, arrests on flimsy pretexts, etc. The war on information and independent thought has now apparently expanded to include Twitter users as well.

The PTI government has not even attempted to distance itself from such autocratic measures; indeed, it has embraced them with gusto. Its ministers have justified the blocking of news websites, glossed over the throttling of the media and ignored continued abductions of people. Nor did the government address the prolonged and unexplained uncertainty over the status of INGOs in Pakistan. Scores of them have been finally forced to wrap up their partnerships with NGOs providing essential services to local communities.

Such is the paranoia prevailing at the moment that it disregards people’s needs, and resorts to sowing confusion as an instrument of control. However, the people of Pakistan, by their very history and ethnic diversity, cannot be straitjacketed into a one-size-fits-all concept of nationalism.

Any appearance of conformity, even if achieved, will be deceptive and fleeting. This country cannot afford another experiment in social engineering.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018