FROM baseless treason cases, to inquiries against journalists for displaying images of Jamal Khashoggi on social media, and now the case against Shahzeb Jillani — it is obvious that legal means are increasingly being deployed to pursue the extra-legal end of silencing free speech and expression in Pakistan.

For airing views critical of the government and state institutions — views not dissimilar to those expressed by many journalists, activists, politicians and even on occasion by members of the judiciary — Mr Jillani has been indicted by the FIA on charges including cyberterrorism, hate speech and defamation.

Moreover, the law-enforcement agency has initiated the process on a complaint lodged by a serial litigant. The charge sheet reads like quintessential McCarthyism; criticism is conflated with subversion, and unsubstantiated allegations of collusion with ‘foreign agencies’ of ‘enemy countries’ have been made with no corroborating evidence to support them.

Not only is it curious that such cases are often filed by habitual private petitioners (rather than the presumably offended parties they claim to be defending), but there is a troubling tendency of such suits being prolonged indefinitely.

Clearly, if the FIA considers the charges against Mr Jillani to be as serious and actionable as they make them appear to be, the investigating officer would have been present for the hearing on Monday. He was not.

If the motivations behind this case — to intimidate and harass one journalist, and send a clear message to others — are apparent to all free- and right-thinking individuals, why then do the courts entertain such frivolous petitions, and that too at the taxpayers’ expense?

Why has the FIA been given extensive licence to interpret and enforce an already murky and ill-defined cybercrime law as it sees fit?

And if such strong-arm tactics to silence critical voices in this country are not checked, what is the logical conclusion?

A fourth estate that reflects the opinionated diversity of a democratic polity, or the censored monotony of an authoritarian regime?

The sword of Damocles looms over Pakistan’s independent press.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2019

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