Try as it may, the state cannot control political discourse online

The PTI’s response to censorship is a lesson on why politics can no longer be constricted.
Published March 31, 2023

“Across the country, women and children belonging to families of those who write and speak on social media against government policies and regime change operation are being threatened to be ‘eliminated’. They’re also forced to deliver pre-written statements after being kidnapped. This was not even the case during Musharraf’s martial law,” reads Azhar Mashwani’s pinned tweet on his personal Twitter account.

“The law of nature is that the more cruelty increases, the more hatred and anger increase,” he continued in a follow-up tweet.

A week ago, on March 23, while Pakistan Day celebrations occupied television screens, Mashwani, the focal person (social media) to PTI chief, Imran Khan, went missing. He disappeared for over a week while police investigators remained ‘clueless’ about his whereabouts.

Mashwani returned today but many other PTI social media activists remain missing, have been arrested, had their homes raided, surveilled, and family members detained or threatened.

Repeated attempts have also been made to contain the PTI’s ‘hatred’ and ‘anger’ on the mainstream. Amid repeated Pemra bans on airing former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s jalsas and speeches, the country’s authoritarian machine is eager to tame the insaf tsunami. This brazen, legally questionable, and sweeping crackdown recipe is not new to Pakistan’s political spectrum.

Old tricks, new faces

“Respect for the freedom of speech including on social media is the constitutional responsibility of the government and suppressing political views of opponents is condemnable,” PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif, then recently ousted prime minister, said in a statement following the arrests of his party’s social media activists in 2017.

More recently, under the aegis of Imran Khan’s government and the country’s military, journalists faced a sustained campaign of censorship, comprising media blackouts, arrests, abductions and FIRs. Those wielding powers have long exercised their archaic censorship pulses on critical quarters. Ironically, those testing and those tested, neither have learnt the lesson: it simply doesn’t work anymore.

Tit for tat

In October 2020, under the PTI government, television broadcast of a Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) rally in Gujranwala was interrupted as PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif addressed the gathering via video link from London. Internet and mobile services were also disrupted soon after Nawaz began his speech. The event was, however, streamed live by political parties and supporters across social platforms, including YouTube and Twitter’s Periscope.

While mainstream media had been restrained from giving airtime to Nawaz by the Pemra, business was booming for digital news outlets and YouTube channels, who marketed exclusive streaming of the “full speech”.

Today, it’s the PTI’s turn to bear the full brunt of the state’s might — though, censoring digital mammoth PTI is no easy task. Despite the draconian crackdown, the party’s social media team, backed by its global supporter base, continues to use sure-footed social media strategies to highlight the ongoing human rights violations in the country.

From crowdsourcing a list of international human rights organisations and influential individuals to tag on Twitter, to urging amplification from overseas Pakistanis, as well as producing a dossier documenting human rights violations under the incumbent regime, the PTI has once again displayed its formidable command on narrative politics.

If anything, the party’s coordinated cry for help has amplified the case against enforced disappearances — an alarming cause that political leaderships, including the PTI, have been reluctant to address in the past.

Haunted by the spectre of social media, Pakistan’s authoritarian machine, whether under the PTI or the incumbent PDM government, has been using the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 as the go-to tool to control political discourse online.

The playbook features arbitrary bans on social media platforms, the filing of bizarre cases to intimidate journalists, activists, and party workers, and pushing tech companies to comply with its censorship requests.

Last year, the Islamabad High Court struck down Section 20, which criminalises defamation, and the controversial Peca ordinance (promulgated by President Dr Arif Alvi during PTI’s rule).

More recently, the Lahore High Court struck down Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly known as sedition law, which pertains to the crime of sedition or inciting “disaffection” against the government, terming it inconsistent with the Constitution. Regardless of the courts’ interventions, the executive continues to extend its abuse of power and lead the saga of illegal harassment and intimidation of citizens.

The PTI’s response to censorship is a lesson on why politics can no longer be constricted. Due to the nature of the internet, politics now transcends national boundaries giving access to international scrutiny.

The Pemra can force newsrooms to bleep the army chief’s name on TV but it cannot dictate live streams. Arrests and abductions of social media activists cannot silence a narrative. Parties in power, backed by the state, may lose track of its record of grave human rights violations, but the internet never forgets.

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