Policed state

Published July 10, 2024

PAKISTAN is under grave threat from its own citizens, or so the interior ministry would have us believe. According to a recent statement made before the Sindh High Court on behalf of the ministry, the government feels it necessary to keep the ban on X in place because it considers the social media platform a “threat to peace and national security”.

The statement reads: “hostile elements operating on X have nefarious intentions to create an environment of chaos and instability, with the ultimate goal of destabilising the country and plunging it into some form of anarchy”. For anyone aware of Pakistan’s sociopolitical context, it is not difficult to guess who is being described as ‘hostile elements’. There are many disgruntled and disillusioned citizens who have taken to using the platform to vent their frustrations against state institutions that clearly appear unnerved by the unchecked criticism and would like to see them silenced.

The ban on X, the interior ministry says, does not curtail freedom of expression or restrict access to information. In fact, ‘it is a measure aimed at ensuring responsible use of social media platforms’. But how does completely blocking access to a global platform encourage responsible use of social media? And how does silencing all Pakistani citizens on X contribute towards national stability and democratic governance? The government does not shed light on these questions.

Meanwhile, another recent development provides a fresh example of how extensively constitutional freedoms are being encroached upon. Following the uncovering of a mass surveillance apparatus spying on potentially millions of citizens, the government has, through an SRO, formally allowed intelligence personnel to intercept and trace calls of any citizen “in the interest of national security”. To be clear, this was already being done, albeit without warrants or legal sanction. It will now continue with legal sanction, but likely still without warrants.

The PML-N-led government must be asked: what is it thinking, giving up important personal protections under the pretext of ‘national security’? Even if the circumstances demand enhanced powers for security institutions, these should not be conceded without adequate checks and balances in place.

There are many seasoned politicians within its ranks who should know better than to expect such measures to yield positive results in the long run. Likewise, silencing social media is no solution to the actual problem of growing public discontent, which is being augmented by the government’s poor policies.

What is needed most right now is for Pakistan to be as accommodative of competing narratives as possible. It would be prudent, therefore, to spend more energy understanding and addressing public concerns rather than treating everyone as an enemy. Suppressing a restless public and blocking dissent will only create more frustrations, which may spill over in unforeseen ways.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2024

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