Silence strategy

Published February 26, 2024

DIGITAL censorship is occurring with alarming frequency in Pakistan. As this editorial is penned, social media platform X remains inaccessible for the ninth straight day.

Access has been disrupted since Feb 17 — ostensibly to stymie political debate and agitation — and with it nearly 128m users have been affected.

This year has already witnessed service blockages of various social media platforms five times, according to Surfshark, a Lithuania-based internet shutdown tracker. Bytes for All, a Pakistani internet rights group, counts at least 15 internet shutdowns in 2023. This distressing trend, including the infamous four-year ban on YouTube, highlights a systemic effort to draw a curtain on the public’s eyes.

The silence of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on the matter is deafening. Despite clear directives from the Sindh High Court to restore access, the authority remains unresponsive, shamefully ignoring both recent and past rulings. This inaction is evidence enough of the PTA’s historical reluctance to uphold digital freedoms, acting instead as an arbiter of censorship under the guise of regulatory oversight.

The government’s lack of ownership and the SHC’s repeated interventions highlight the state’s failure to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. The implications of such digital ‘load-shedding’ are far-reaching.

For many, X and similar platforms are not just much-needed spaces for self-expression but also critical channels for information. The blockade has extended to even VPN services — the only lifeline to uncensored internet access. The pattern of restrictions, not limited to politically sensitive periods such as elections, reveals a Faustian strategy to curb public debate and scrutiny.

Such attempts at internet censorship only serve to tarnish Pakistan’s image globally and betray the democratic principles the country purports to uphold. It is high time the PTA and the caretaker set-up were held accountable for their actions. The brazen disregard for court orders, the Constitution, and the digital rights of citizens cannot go unchallenged.

As we have seen in the past, such actions not only infringe on individual freedoms but also significantly hamper economic growth and innovation. How can Pakistan hope to become an IT hub — which ministers say will bring in much-needed dollars — when internet freedoms can be yanked on a whim?

Pakistan must not continue down this path of digital authoritarianism; the cost to its democracy, economy, and people is far too great.

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2024

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