The ban on X: The ‘national security’ rationale doesn’t fly anymore

National security has become a convenient shield for arbitrary censorship, leaving us questioning the true intentions behind the systematic suppression of our digital freedoms.
Published April 22, 2024

“National security” — a term abused so frequently by successive governments in Pakistan that it would be better off archived. Over the years, the term has been stripped of its true essence — devolved to an enervating level of widespread dismissal among many of us; mutated into an ugly weapon and spiked with alarmingly sweeping conditions.

From the deepest recesses of ambiguity, “national security” is very conveniently dislodged to cover arbitrary measures — an easily predictable rationale from the state to justify its blatant infringements across the rights spectrum. Hence, when the continuing suspension of X (formerly Twitter) was recently ascribed to “national security” threats by the Ministry of Interior in court, it hardly came as a surprise.

We are no longer buying into this rote rationale. And no apologies for not doing so.

Continuous blackout

This week marks the second month of X’s suspension in Pakistan, with the platform having been inaccessible since February 17, 2024, in the country, a week after the nation went to polls. The election day itself saw the light of day through an enforced connectivity blackout.

Citizens seeking their polling details were left in the dark. Cellular services were shoved into a spiral of frustrating inoperability. Phone calls stumbled into empty signal bars on the screens. Access to information about real-time events during the polls was lost — or to frame it more accurately — strategically blocked. Lofty promises to hold “free” and “fair” elections were shredded in plain sight. No surprises there. All was carried out under the pretext of “national security” on a day when the nation was exercising the right to decide its future.

It is curiously difficult to understand why citizens have to bear the brunt of these perceived national security concerns specifically on communication channels, and of late, social media platforms. The law and order situation in Pakistan does not illustrate a pleasing picture either. It hasn’t for as long as I can remember.

We wake up to horrific reports on a range of crimes. Raping of minors and adults, young people shot dead in street robberies, brutal crimes against women, targeted killings, attacks on minorities, mob lynchings, and enforced disappearances are just a few of the unfortunate realities to which we have inadvertently become accustomed over the years. I, to this day, wonder how I survived the mugging on a busy road that left my head split open despite zero resistance. If all that does not concern security and does not warrant proactive containment measures, it would be enlightening to know what does.

With these crimes only on the rise, it is beyond one’s ability to comprehend how the surreptitious takedown of an entire social media platform will preserve national security. To say the suspension of X without any word from the government for months is beyond embarrassing would be an understatement, given our consistently fragile position in the international digital market.

Mum’s the word

What is frustrating is not just the ban itself, but the way it has been treated with sheer ignorance and appalling lack of accountability. It has made a spectacle of our presence in the global digital community, where we are already languishing in the lowest ranks. And that too on several fronts, be it access to the internet or establishing safe spaces to safeguard digital rights, Pakistan’s performance is nothing short of disappointing.

However, when it comes to content takedowns, such as on TikTok, we even surpass the United States (US), which boasts a far more advanced communications infrastructure — not to mention the geography and its status as a “superpower”. There is, however, no transparency around such large volumes of content removals. National security concerns or breach of hidden sanctimonious statutes of “morality” and “decency”? The government knows best, of course. We, as a people, can only take a guess out of the two — as these are the only official stock responses.

Maybe our national interests are not even remotely compromised by our federal information minister very casually dismissing the suspension of X in the media to the nation. Twitter is working in the country. Tweets are also being made. Show a notification on the ban if there’s any, and we’ll talk then. The public servant only went on to admit later that the platform was already banned when the new government came into power. The audacity to pull off such a farce in the face of naked truth.

Forget the media, the travesty of accountability by authorities in courts continues to breed the rampant culture of impunity. The apportioning of the blame. The obviously deliberate attempts to weasel out of answering. The back-and-forth tossing of responsibility. The flagrant flouting of fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. That does not undermine our national interests at large, maybe, and by extension, national security.

Block everything

Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Bigo — you name the platform and we already have a blockage either in continuity or indented in history. Maybe blocking is the easy way out. It at least projects some semblance of dedicated efforts on the part of the authorities. With blocking comes a modicum of what the state wants us to believe guarantees security.

A religious event or festival approaching? Block mobile phone services across the country, for who exactly would a complete loss of communication impact? Cricket happening? Block the roads, for hours-long snarlups across the country’s largest city (Karachi) wouldn’t hurt. Some random figure in the government took offence at some random piece of content posted online by some random person from some random corner of the country? Block the platform for the whole nation, as who, in their right mind, wouldn’t want an entire online resource taken down for “sacrilegious” content? How lightly the weightage of security is eroded. Again, threats to national security concerns, maybe.

If you don’t agree with these control or mitigation strategies, then it brings us to what exactly preserves national security. Is it the failure to contain the continuing crimes highlighted above? Is it the draconian cyber legislation aimed at equipping the authorities with formulated controls to broaden censorship and surveillance and target citizens? Is it the killing or disappearance of journalists who are picked up from their homes by unidentified men or them being taken to court for merely doing their work by law enforcement agencies? Is it the watchdogs still seeking out and harassing dissenting voices under laws that have been struck down by the court? Or is it the aversion to resounding calls to respect fundamental rights by advocacy groups from around the world?

Not much to be achieved through these arguments. Maybe it is the blocking of a social media platform, after all. Don’t forget. It is “national security” that is at stake here.

But please be reliably informed. While the government may claim it’s all in the name of national security, many of us aren’t entirely sold on that explanation. We can’t just swallow what we’re being fed without questioning it.

Header image created with AI