Is the government waging a war against online activism?


    Dark times ahead


    The past few days have shown that democracy in the country is still under threat from powerful holier-than-thou elements that have not yet accepted the public’s right to free speech and want to push the country back to the dark dictatorial days


    The statements made by federal ministers and ruling party leaders in the past few days give an impression that the PML-N government is all set to muzzle political criticism using draconian laws. Minister of State for Information Marriyam Aurangzeb and PML-N MNA Daniyal Aziz on Monday threatened to use the country’s controversial cyber crime law against PTI Chairman Imran Khan for ‘carrying out a propaganda campaign against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family’. The information minister also notified social media users that those ‘trying to influence the decision of the Supreme Court in Panama Leaks case’ will be prosecuted under the country’s cyber crime and defamation laws.

    The controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill was passed by Parliament last year despite strong opposition from civil society. Government leaders had maintained that the law would be used to deal with cyber bullying and for acting against criminal activities online, but concerns were raised from several quarters over some of its parts that leave it open to misuse by governmental authorities. Activists feared it would be used against opponents for political victimisation, and they were right.

    Regardless of what one thinks about the PTI chief, expressing political views is his democratic right and the government’s attempt to silence opponents and critics through force is worrying, to say the least.

    PML-N’S inability to take criticism

    Last week the Islamabad High Court asked the government to remove blasphemous content from online platforms even if it means blocking the entire social media, and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar had a field day. It almost seemed as if the minister was eagerly waiting for such an opportunity. The minister had told the court that the government will go to any extent including permanently blocking all such social media websites if they refuse to cooperate (in removing the blasphemous content).

    Meanwhile, on Thursday, the interior minister announced that Pakistan will seek the help of US authorities in crackdown on online ‘blasphemy’. Nisar suggested that the alleged blasphemous content being shared on social media is a ‘conspiracy against Islam’.

    One cannot help but recall how warmly the interior minister received the heads of banned sectarian terror outfits a few months ago who met him to discuss anti-terrorism action of the government. Nisar also justified his action on the floor of the assembly and said that sectarianism and terrorism should not be equated. None of this is surprising given the track record of the minister who is often found defending extremists, but this kind of hypocrisy is unbecoming of the office he holds.

    Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law and PML-N leader Captain Safdar also jumped at the opportunity to tell us how ‘evil’ social media is. He made an emotional speech in the National Assembly and lauded the Islamabad High Court for taking ‘firm position’ on the issue. Safdar said that with blasphemous content still available on social media, he does not see the Cyber Crime Act as being implemented. “Why are we being forced to lay our lives on the issue,” the MNA asked.

    Using blasphemy law to curb political speech

    Such sentimental statements from the ruling party members show that they are trying to gain public support in the name of religion to avoid resentment when a crackdown on free speech is launched. It should be clear by now that the government is trying to clamp down on political speech in the garb of anti-blasphemy campaign. It goes without saying that this is a dangerous approach.

    Blasphemy is considered as a death warrant in Pakistan and statistics tell that a large number of people accused under the law were extra-judicially murdered before their respective trials were over.

    A public message released by FIA last week following the IHC’s orders asked citizens to keep an eye on ‘blasphemers’ online and report them to the agency’s Islamabad office. This dangerous decision to grant public the authority to decide what is blasphemous will lead to further violence, given how conveniently the law is misused against the religious minorities of the country.

    The debate surrounding the abduction and recovery of five bloggers and their alleged blasphemous posts on social media has revealed the true colours of certain leaders and political commentators who are acting as judge, jury and executioner. Most of those seeking action against the bloggers who have not even found guilty of the said charge are usually silent when terrorists bomb our cities and kill innocent people. Some of them even try to justify the action of the terrorists because of their bigoted mindset.

    Instead of drowning in sentiments, the state officials should use reasoning to deal with the issue. If the government is going to act against blasphemers, it should address concerns about absence of fair trial in such cases. Has the government taken any measures to ensure that those who are going to be tried for blasphemy will not become victims of mob justice? Does the FIA have an effective monitoring system to trace down the actual ‘blasphemers’? Using the controversial blasphemy law will only cause further destruction if these concerns are not addressed. This whole campaign might get innocent people killed, as has been witnessed in the past.

    Appeasing the extremists — bad idea

    Trying to get rid of critics and opponents in the garb of anti-blasphemy drive is a dangerous route. If the government thinks it can appease the extremists by using such tactics, it is badly mistaken. Appeasement of the extremists never works, it only backfires.

    The past few days have shown that democracy in the country is still under threat from powerful holier-than-thou elements that have not yet accepted the public’s right to free speech and want to push the country back to the dark dictatorial days.

    The PML-N leaders have always termed dictatorial regimes as the reasons for Pakistan’s problems, so why are they now following in the footsteps of the dictators? Pakistan is not a monarchy, and political activism is not a crime. The government should stop trying to silence dissent while hiding behind draconian laws.