Silencing the public

Published February 21, 2024

THE stench of desperation hangs heavy over Islamabad. The powerful have had a lot of trouble lately keeping the public under their thumb. Short of ideas, they have decided to block Pakistan’s access to X (formerly Twitter), one of the most popular digital mediums for self-expression.

The authorities are seemingly so afraid of the public setting the narrative agenda that they have decided to simply pull the plug. Such repressive actions are a shame in this day and age: millions of opinion-makers and citizens around the world converge virtually each day on the platform to exchange important news and views — why can Pakistanis not be among them?

There has been no word from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority or the IT ministry, which would previously issue at least a mealy-mouthed explanation when denying the citizenry access to mainstream internet services. Even they have not figured out how to justify what is being done.

One marvels at the hypocrisy of some of our caretaker ministers, who have ostensibly been using VPN services to continue posting on X even as their own people are being denied the same privilege.

The IT minister’s behaviour, in particular, is galling: during this latest blockage, he has celebrated the ‘take-off’ of Pakistan’s IT industry and achieving 13 items on his agenda, while also announcing two new schemes for the industry — all while not saying a word about why Pakistani users suddenly cannot access one of the world’s most popular social mediums.

It seems he is more interested in self-promotion while the state is busy broadcasting its abject disregard for the digital economy. He should be asked: why would any entrepreneur bother investing in Pakistan, especially when the country’s internet access and telecom policies always seem subject to change without notice?

As for the PTA, the less said the better. In suspending mobile phone services without any prior warning throughout election day and well after, it had already wreaked immeasurable damage on Pakistan this month.

Many citizens were left unable to exercise their constitutional rights due to the communications blackout, which also contributed towards worsening the political instability by providing a convenient cover for the alleged irregularities that occurred later that night. And yet, the authority refuses to learn. Acting as if it is unaccountable, it is now curtailing citizens’ digital rights without even bothering to come up with a justification.

It seems that the PTA has quietly become just another tool in the hands of our habitually oppressive state, to be used against the people of Pakistan whenever they start inconveniencing the powers that be. It is important that it be checked immediately. With precedents available thanks to prior court rulings on internet bans, it should be sued for its actions.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2024

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