THE proposed task force to police social media for ‘anti-army’ content is a bad idea, simply because such vague schemes very much have the potential to be misused, and can end up as tools to crack down further on free speech. As reported on Friday, the government is mulling the formation of the task force to check online content critical of the military; personnel from the FIA, PTA, Nadra and the LEAs are supposed to man this force. However, rather than seeking to genuinely protect state institutions from a real threat from hostile actors, this appears to be a political move, as those associated with the ruling set-up have accused the PTI of running anti-military campaigns. This is only the latest in a series of arbitrary moves to increase punishment for criticism of the army and other state institutions. For example, last month the cabinet considered a bill to intensify the crackdown on social media, while in April 2021, during the PTI’s rule, a law was proposed that called for two years in jail and a fine for those who “intentionally ridicule the armed forces”.
Such proposed laws and task forces are anathema to democratic culture. In a free society, all state institutions must be open to criticism from the people. True, clear cases of defamation or calls to promote violence are a different matter, but there already exist laws on the statute books to address these situations. The latest move — and all previous moves — to stifle criticism of the institutions is linked to politics, with the government of the day bending over backwards to please the real power brokers in Pakistan. The fact is that the army is being increasingly criticised because it is still very deeply embedded in politics, despite the claims of the previous military leadership of dissociating itself from involvement in political matters. It is also ironic that many of the social media figures being targeted presently were once upon a time ‘encouraged’ by the establishment to target other political parties. The solution to the issue lies in all institutions working within their constitutional parameters, and allowing a healthy culture of criticism and debate within the norms of civility. A source told this paper that the social media task force “for now … is just a proposal”. Such proposals should be shot down, permanently.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023