LAST week, several news outlets reported comments made by the chairperson of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on the organisation’s troubles in ‘managing’ content over the internet. The initial story that came out suggested that the PTA chief, a retired major general, had suggested exploring options utilised by countries like the UAE and China, where major social media platforms are either banned or heavily regulated. Later on, a flurry of inchoate clarifications issued by the organisation stressed that these were used as examples and that the PTA has no intention of banning internet platforms in Pakistan.
The entire exchange, which happened in front of a Senate special committee, makes several references to blasphemous content hosted outside of Pakistan as the main source of frustration for the telecom regulator. While considered a serious matter, it is worth remembering that a similar debate led to a multi-year ban on YouTube under the PPP government, placing a significant freeze on content production and creation in Pakistan.
Even if we take the most benign interpretation of the PTA’s statement, it doesn’t take much to see through the bugbear as a mere foothold in the larger conversation around regulating Pakistan’s internet sphere. And it doesn’t take much to see why the internet is proving to be a source of considerable consternation to the Pakistani state at this point.
Regulating the internet under the pretext of hurt Muslim sentiment is something the state has been pushing for some time.
It doesn’t take much to see that the China or Bangladesh or Burma model, whichever one is in vogue at this point, occupies many important minds.
It received extra credence in the highly securitised atmosphere of the last decade, when anti-state jihadi content appeared as another cause for regulatory concern. The outcome, one that many are now familiar with, was the ill-thought-out Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016, which was passed with considerable consensus by the previous, PML-N-led government. In the long list of things the party should be regretting, now that it’s on the other side of the quash, this should be pretty high up on the list.
As highlighted by Ramsha Jahangir in an excellent online piece for this publication, PECA 2016 arms the regulator to assert its control by bypassing more thorough and consultative procedures for banning internet content. As a piece of legislation, PECA echoes the larger, danda-driven ethos of the Pakistani state on issues of political conflict, which has become all the more apparent in the last 12 months. What is this approach? Essentially, if you don’t like something, ban it, incarcerate it, and don’t let it see the light of day.
None of this is to suggest that the issue of how a state (any state) interacts with internet content is straightforward. In countries like Pakistan, where physical violence against minorities of several types is common, provocations on and through the internet are a public policy issue that need to be resolved.
But the pathway to resolution needs to be based on principles that are, at the very least, enshrined in the Constitution. To put it as briefly as possible, one unelected bureaucrat, appointed by an opaque process that was likely influenced by his former rank and institutional affiliation, cannot be making decisions that impact millions of internet users in the country. At the very least, it needs to be consultative and subject to transparent guidelines that can be debated and amended as and when the situation demands.
On the other hand, this entire episode (and what’s gone on for the last three years with cyberspace in Pakistan as a whole), and in particular the examples that were cited in front of the Senate panel, provides us with a window into what the Pakistani state aspires to become.
IR scholars have pointed out that norm diffusion is a powerful explanatory mechanism to understand how military and civilian leaders) make certain decisions. Norms often emanate from state-to-state power relations, with the more powerful ones providing blueprints for the less powerful ones. In Pakistan’s case, with increasing proximity to China and the Gulf, born out of our economic and geostrategic imperatives (or should one call them handicaps?), some of what defines those states is going to appear attractive to our decision-makers as well.
This was something that people have highlighted at various points in the recent past as well. Authoritarianism is not something extraneous to the Pakistani state. The country has a long and illustrious (sic) history of centralising authority and utiliding coercion to achieve political objectives. What makes the current moment more pronounced is the perception of severity of the ‘national situation’. In other words, decision-makers now act on the sentiment that the country had become too soft, corrupt, and hollow in dealing with certain economic and political issues, and, therefore, needs a firmer grip on the handle to navigate through to eternal salvation.
The PTA hearing made the analogies explicit, but it doesn’t take much to see that the China or Bangladesh or Burma model, whichever one is in vogue at this point, occupies many important minds. On paper, Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy, but such a remarkable one that every important decision is being taken by unelected technocrats, bureaucrats, and military officers of various shades.
To address and resolve this dissonance, I submit a fairly straightforward request: let those who wish to control this model, and those who wish to play along with it, come out with an institutional plan that suggests a new legal architecture for the state. The dissonance as it stands now just produces confusion and increases transaction costs. If the desire is to have a unitary state for however long, at least be open about it. That would allow citizens and politicians alike to engage with the actual truth, rather than switching back and forth between what is real and what is for show.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2019