X post facto

Published April 19, 2024

AS has become its modus operandi, the state is using smoke and mirrors to try to justify its decision to ban X, formerly Twitter. After weeks of denial and plain misrepresentation, including in statements made to the courts, the government recently owned up to blocking the popular social media platform for Pakistani users “in the interest of upholding national security, maintaining public order, and preserving the integrity of our nation”.

From representations made on behalf of the interior ministry before the Islamabad High Court, it appears that the ‘threat’ to Pakistan’s national security from X was flagged by intelligence agencies in a ‘confidential’ report.

The interior ministry thereafter cut off Pakistan’s access to X, seemingly without even bothering to fulfil all procedural requirements. One of the ‘justifications’ now being given by the government for this ‘punitive action’ is that X refuses to localise its operations here and “does not obey Pakistani laws”.

While the state is otherwise entitled and, indeed, expected to take any measures necessary to protect the country’s interests, it cannot do so without providing lawful justifications. In the current political climate, where there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the state’s policies, it is also rather difficult to take any claim regarding some unspecified ‘threat’ from social media at face value.

If there really was some clear and present danger to the country from the Pakistani people’s ability to access and post on X, which necessitated an immediate ban, this ought to have been spelt out for both the courts and the general public when the X ban was first challenged in the courts. Instead, as one recalls, the government’s representatives kept denying that a ban was even in place. When questioned, some of the caretaker ministers had smugly shrugged it off, telling those people who were affected to ‘live with it’ or use a VPN service.

It may be recalled that the X ban came in the midst of a raging controversy over the widespread manipulation of election results, right after a senior bureaucrat had issued a damning public ‘confession’ of his own complicity in the same. The correlation of these events, when seen in the broader context of the ongoing campaign to keep mass media in line and ‘under control’, would give anyone ample cause to doubt the government’s rather convenient ‘national interest’ justification.

As far as the government’s complaint regarding X’s refusal to open a local office is concerned, it should realise that global tech companies are very wary of markets where regulations are opaque and subject to official whims. No company will want to move to a country where the state can quietly shut down a major global service without justification or due process. Our decision-makers should realise the harm they are causing.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2024

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