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Welcome to 1984

Updated February 16, 2019

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The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

ONLY a month and a half into 2019, we have seen heightened action against Pakistani citizens whose opinions, words or peaceful protests were deemed unacceptable by the state, in clear violation of the norms of a functioning democracy with a Constitution that guarantees fundamental rights. Articles 9, 10, 10-A, 14, 16, 17, 19, and 19-A of the Constitution seem to be chapters of a work of fiction these days. As if this was not bad enough, the government has announced plans to crack down further on social media, and regulate all media, including digital, through a combined Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority. Welcome to 1984.

Extrajudicial killings seem to be continuing, and with Rao Anwar being given royal treatment despite evidence implicating him in the encounter killings of 444 citizens, there seem to be little consequences for it. Take the brutal murder of four people in the Sahiwal police encounter, or allegations of police brutality behind the death of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement leader Prof Arman Loni in Loralai, in whose case an FIR has still not been registered. These are clear violations of Article 9 that guarantees the security and life and liberty of a person, and Article 10-A that guarantees a fair trial under due process. State officials responsible for taking the law into their own hands should face the consequences of the law and be made an example of in order to inject a sense of humanity in all trigger-happy officials.

Efforts to control what citizens can say sound ideal in an Orwellian dystopia, but not in a democratic state.

The continued arbitrary detentions, disappearances and arrests of activists, journalists and academics are very alarming. Gulalai Ismail, Abdullah Nangyal, and 17 other activists protesting Loni’s alleged murder in Islamabad were whisked away in police vehicles, their whereabouts unknown for more than a day, their families and lawyers not granted access to them. Neither were the charges under which they were being held made known, in clear violation of Article 10 that guarantees safeguards with regard to arrest and detention, and Article 10-A.

Prof Ammar Ali Jan was arrested at 4am when his house was raided by the police in Lahore, with a horrifying video of the saga going viral on social media and instilling fear in citizens. His crime seems to have been that he attended a protest in Lahore against Loni’s murder. He was granted bail, getting a hero’s welcome outside the police station upon his release. Similarly, two students in Multan were arrested under sedition charges for attending a protest against Loni’s murder, and four others arrested for speeches criticising the prime minister.

TV journalist Rizwanur Rehman Razi ‘Dada’ was similarly taken away from his house, but not by the police. He was then presented at an FIA office and, as per the FIR, charged under Sections 11 (hate speech) and 20 (offences against dignity of a natural person) of the draconian Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, and Sections 123-A (condemnation of creation of state and advocacy of abolition of its sovereignty) and 500 (defamation) of the Pakistan Penal Code, for his tweets ‘against’ state institutions. He was granted bail by the judicial magistrate upon being supplied no evidence of 123-A being violated, the only non-bailable offence included in the FIR.

Also read: Why Orwell’s 1984 matters so much now

The state must realise that attempting to control the opinions and speech of peaceful citizens by force is always going to be counterproductive, and is not in its mandate of governance. Announcing a crackdown on social media in the name of hate speech is an old trick, one we have seen the previous government play in the run-up to the passage of Peca — a law that has since been used more to silence critics of state policies than to protect citizens’ rights, which the government is actually elected to do.

The information minister stating that social media needs to be controlled in the same way that electronic media has been is not only an admission of censorship on the government’s part, but also signals the fact that those in government do not understand the fundamentally different nature of social media. How, and more importantly why, does the government expect to ‘control’ the thoughts and opinions of millions of citizens on the only remaining free space they have? There are no advertising revenues that can be influenced, or distribution that can be controlled. More importantly, it empowers individual citizens to exercise their voice — something that traditional media has been unable to do over time. Forming one regulatory authority for fundamentally diverse radio, print, electronic and digital media sounds ideal in an Orwellian dystopia, but does not belong in a democratic Pakistan.

In its recent judgement on the Faizabad dharna, the Supreme Court clearly stated that “Citizens have the right to peacefully protest and hold demonstrations, and may do so against any action or decision of a government or authority” as long as the fundamental rights of other citizens are not infringed upon. The decision also stressed the importance of freedom of speech and press under Article 19, and warns against censoring media, including giving directions for self-regulation.

In light of this decision, and protests by citizens across the country against extrajudicial killings, it would be wise for the state to focus on its mandate of protecting the rights and interests of citizens rather than victimising them for peacefully exercising constitutional freedoms. Doing so is only emboldening its critics.

The PTI-led government must deliver on its promise to introduce legislation that criminalises enforced disappearances. Furthermore, it must prosecute officials responsible for extrajudicial killings, and must accept applications for FIR in cases such as Loni’s rather than stalling them. Instead of introducing new laws and authorities, the government should focus on reforming the existing legal framework, including Peca, which gives immoderately broad powers to censor content on the internet; develop the capacity of investigation authorities such as the FIA; and focus on the journalist protection bill to shield vulnerable journalists from interference and reprisals for performing their duties.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

usama@bolobhi.org

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2019