The ongoing campaign against digital media is an extension of the established patterns of how the state – including elected government – can muzzle free speech. Since January of this year, social media has been under attack. A number of bloggers and social media activists were picked up to investigate if they were involved in promoting blasphemous content. Now another kind of blasphemy is being checked. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), on orders of its political master, Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan, has commenced a massive crackdown on social media activists at the political level. Counter-Terrorism Wing of FIA has served call notices to activists from PTI, PML-N and other social groups to appear before it. Investigators have also confiscated electronic devices of those summoned for questioning. Officials say there is a list of 200 social media activists, and at the moment they are investigating 18 persons. So far, two people have been interrogated and released.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan had earlier vowed not to tolerate criticism of the military and its top brass in the name of freedom of expression. He had ordered the FIA to arrest and prosecute those involved in posting against the military and its policies on digital media. A notice served to Mr Salar Khan of PTI didn’t cite any law that he had violated. But then the elected representatives passed the notorious cyber crime law last year, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. This is a convenient tool to intimidate social media users. Taha Siddiqui, a journalist, has also filed a petition as a preventive measure after receiving a call from an FIA official to appear before him for questioning.
Pakistan’s history of press freedoms is unenviable to say the least. For much of the country’s history, the media have been under strict state control or surveillance. Since the deregulation of broadcast media in early 2000s, things improved and now we do have a robust media industry with dozens of TV channels and hundreds of newspapers. Yet, the media indulge in self-censorship and there are red lines well known to editors and journalists. In 2014, the electronic media was tamed with a clear reminder of the extent to which it could report.
It seems that the PML-N leadership, particularly Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, are abusing the cyber crime law and relevant legal regimes for political victimisation with the intent to harass political activists. In plain words, the ongoing crackdown is a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan. It is incumbent on PM Nawaz Sharif to order an end to this operation, as it is simply unacceptable in a democracy. Political dissent is central to democracy as it promotes democratic culture and institutions. Mr Sharif’s record in office during the 1990s is also problematic. He was not too tolerant of a critical media. The military has also been averse to any critique, howsoever well intentioned that might be.
At the end of the day, it is the PM and the Parliament that have to reverse the culture of censorship, labelling dissenters as traitors and preventing public debate on national issues. That such activities are taking place on the watch of an elected government is appalling. Given our history, civil liberties need to expand, not regress. If this operation is being conducted to please the Army, then the political leadership needs to engage with military bosses in an institutional manner and hold a dialogue instead of shutting down political workers and social media activists.
For now the image of government and Army will further suffer if such repressive tactics continue.