Muzzling critical voices

Updated March 30, 2019

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IT would be comical — if it weren’t for the fact that it so perfectly encapsulates how shrunken the space for free speech and expression in Pakistan now truly is. More alarming still is the seeming enthusiasm of civil authorities to take a page out of the fascist’s playbook to hasten the demise of civil liberties.

The notification of an inquiry — lodged by the FIA’s cybercrime wing citing a directive from the interior ministry — against several journalists and groups for participating in a “targeted social media campaign” to criticise the Saudi crown prince during his recent visit to Pakistan has been decried and derided in equal parts since it came to light. Even officials within the ministry and FIA have expressed confusion about how to proceed, since there is (as yet) no statute under which to prosecute citizens for expressing solidarity with and sharing images of slain journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi.

Whether or not the FIA is merely rubber-stamping, it points to an increasing misuse of the investigatory body as a literal thought police to control and silence online voices, which dovetails with a general escalation in abuses of power to gag the press and curtail fundamental rights of free speech, expression and information.

It is even more puzzling since only days prior to the delegation’s February visit, another circular issued by the ministry alluding to “nefarious interests” keen on “maligning” the Saudi prince was leaked — and denounced by the minister of state for interior, who said that the government was investigating the matter “as per the directives” of the prime minister.

While the findings of that probe have yet — if ever — to be shared, the fact that no official wishes to claim the animus for either this or the resurrected attempt to target independent and critical voices is positively Kafkaesque. With truth so much stranger than fiction, perhaps it is futile — even dangerous — to demand who really is behind Pakistan’s draconian descent, with all its attendant absurdities. 

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2019