FOR four hours this week, all social media platforms in the country were shut down, a measure the government said was necessary ahead of the clampdown on violent TLP supporters on Friday. Successive governments have blocked mobile networks and platforms such as TikTok, Facebook and YouTube on separate occasions in the past, but this blanket freezing of all internet-based communication applications is unprecedented.

Without prior notice, the government prevented millions from using these platforms to “maintain public order and safety” — a step that bodes badly for future internet freedoms as the threat of more unannounced, arbitrary bans looms. The negative effects of such a ban have not been lost on the government.

After the clampdown, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid apologised to Pakistani citizens for the inconvenience the government’s step had caused them, and said that the measure had become “essential” as violent protests were feared. However, his apology does not change the fact that the move was a naked display of the state’s ability to block social media and the internet at will. If anything, it has shown that in the future, a protest campaign or demonstration by one of the mainstream groups, can also trigger such a draconian step in the name of public safety. For large-scale public protests, where violence is always a possibility, such a ban has set a dark and dangerous precedent.

The state should employ more effective strategies to deal with such situations and handle the latter through strong law-enforcement mechanisms. Depriving citizens of their fundamental right to communication is contrary to democratic norms, and should only be considered when there is a serious threat of a terror attack. By framing its action as a necessary evil for public order, the state has unwittingly admitted its failures.

The interior minister’s promise that this would not happen again is simply not enough, especially given how rapidly freedoms are being eroded in the country. Attempts by the government to criminalise criticism, block access to platforms and grant the authorities sweeping powers of surveillance are a normalised reality. Digital rights activists have repeatedly criticised the social media rules framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, through which the government can block and remove content it deems unlawful. With all these signs of the government’s desire to control the conversation on these platforms, this past week’s blanket ban is yet another reminder of the government flexing its censorship muscle.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2021

Opinion

The curse of irrelevance
24 Jul 2021

The curse of irrelevance

Fear, in essence, is a powerful de-motivator for those who believe their success lies in lazy public validation...
Good & bad Muslims
Updated 24 Jul 2021

Good & bad Muslims

It is essential to interrogate the wider epidemic of violence.
The Afghan stalemate
Updated 21 Jul 2021

The Afghan stalemate

The Taliban cannot think of ruling Afghanistan without international legitimacy.

Editorial

Cyberattack on rights
Updated 24 Jul 2021

Cyberattack on rights

A COLLABORATIVE investigation into a data leak of software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group has ...
24 Jul 2021

Sleeper cells

THERE was a time not too long ago when militant groups had unleashed a reign of terror in Pakistan, resulting in...
24 Jul 2021

Prisoners’ return

THE families of 62 Pakistani prisoners who had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia had reason to rejoice this Eid as...
India’s admission
Updated 24 Jul 2021

India’s admission

It was no secret that India had been manoeuvring behind the scenes to ensure that Pakistan remained on the grey list.
EU headscarf ban
Updated 23 Jul 2021

EU headscarf ban

Moves by the EU to curtail the religious freedoms of Muslims and others in the bloc need to be reviewed.
Disposal of offal
Updated 22 Jul 2021

Disposal of offal

The least people can do is to make an effort and dump entrails in designated areas.