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November 23, 2012

ONCE again the government has resorted to suspending cellular phone facilities on a day when security concerns are high. In the approach to Ashura, it has gone one step further by also banning wireless phone services. Whether or not these steps are actually effective in averting a terrorist attack remains a moot point; we still await evidence to prove that such measures, which also restrict access to essential services such as police and emergency helplines, are necessary in the fight against extremism. While we can still take heart from the fact that the suspension of phone services is temporary, what possible defence can be found for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s first imposing a ban on night-time and low-rate cellphone packages, and now preventing cellphone operators from offering chat-room services to users?

PTA says it is following the directives of the Supreme Court, and that legislators say such services are being misused, especially by students. On the floor of the National Assembly, a few voices have raised such concerns, with one legislator tabling a private member’s bill on the issue: MNA Nosheen Saeed is reported as having commented “Are these mobile telephone operators offering telephone services or running other services to misguide young people?”

Obviously, then, in the view of certain circles the threat to Pakistan’s social fabric comes not from entrenched issues such as terrorism, poverty and the lack of education, but from the morality codes of the young. According to this regressive view, it is the state’s responsibility to take up the role of morality police. Nothing, perhaps, can be more repugnant to those who stand for civil liberties and who point out that the answer does not lie in curbing personal freedoms. Further, each such step becomes a precedent for the next that shifts the goalposts and imposes more restrictions. The state has already established that people’s online freedoms can arbitrarily be curtailed — YouTube has remained offline for several weeks now, and PTA has not yet clarified its position or made a firm announcement that it will be reinstated. Does the government really want to go down this path? Regression is what extremists in Pakistan also want. The state and its functionaries, as well as the representatives of the people, need to dwell on the fact that the citizenry needs to be empowered through increasing freedoms and choices, not disempowered still further with the state itself taking on the role of an enforcer of bans and a restrictor of liberties.