X-communication

Published March 17, 2024

IT has now been a month since Pakistani authorities decided that the country must be cut off from one of the world’s most popular means of exchanging information. We still do not know who pulled the trigger, and the newly inducted government seems to believe, like the caretaker set-up, that it can get away with quietly banning X, formerly known as Twitter, as long as it continues to publicly deny the fact that a restriction on its access is in place. While important government officials and offices continue to use the service — the speculation is that they may be using VPNs to access it — ordinary citizens remain out of the loop and unable to access the information that their own representatives are sharing on the platform. The ‘Twitter ban’, as it is being referred to, is just the latest in a series of measures adopted by the state to silence critical voices before and after the highly controversial Feb 8 elections, which themselves had been marred by a day-long blackout of cellular phone and internet services. Indeed, it seems that the ban on X has been sustained because the state’s previous transgressions were left unchecked.

In this context, it is encouraging to note that more than two dozen civil society and human rights groups have now joined forces to protest the state’s heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent. Criticising the state in a public statement on network shutdowns and platform blocking, the organisations have pointed out that such actions “infringe upon the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and access to information” and have “set a troubling precedent of throttling genuine political discourse”. Among their demands are the immediate restoration of X, repeal of laws that enable censorship, more transparency on “decisions that impact the free use of the internet”, a legal clarification for the blocking of X, and abiding by Pakistan’s commitments to upholding freedom of expression and right to information. These are principled demands, and it is hoped that the judiciary, which has lately seemed troublingly lax on the growing restrictions being placed on citizens’ rights, will also take note of the matter and move to check the state. Blocking public expression and access to information is a slippery slope that opens the door to much more sinister means of repression. It must, therefore, be resisted.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2024

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