The crackdown season has started again in Pakistan, this time the target being social media activists. People who use social media to raise their voices on political and other policy matter issues are being asked to present themselves before the Federal Investigation Agency to prove they are not an agent or working against national interest.
This method of silencing the voices by using the shield of National Interest is very old and conventional in Pakistan. The only difference this time is that it is being done under an elected Government who somehow declares itself a champion of democracy. To dissent with the defined policies has always been considered a crime and all the dictators used the term National Interest to silence critics. This latest crackdown on social media activists started a few days ago, around a dozen people having been interrogated by the law agency.
The ugliest part of this episode is that the social media activists or bloggers who are asked to present before the FIA have to surrender their cellphones, laptops and passwords of their social media accounts. Under which law they have been asked to surrender their belongings and their digital ids remains the question. While the world is enjoying more and more freedom through the internet and social media and a new global civilization that is emerging that does not acknowledge any prejudice, bias or self-created delusional restrictions; here in Pakistan the case is different. People are actually being told to remain in the limit and not to question authority or hegemony of institutions. It seems the vices that are raised to criticize the civil or defense establishment are actually having an impact and that is why efforts are underway to curb freedom of speech and expression. Social media in Pakistan has actually created a space for the educated urban class of the country where they can express themselves and it has also become the most effective platform for raising questions on policy matters and rejecting propaganda.
Yes there have been cases where institutions were maligned unnecessarily or where the blasphemous content was uploaded intentionally to degrade the believers but it does not mean that the Government, instead of focusing on how to educate masses on the effective use of social media, starts arresting bloggers and activists. In the modern age it is almost impossible to impose restrictions on the right to expression or freedom to speech or write. Unfortunately, the State, by creating fear among social media users is actually trying to gain control over social media, without realizing the fact that it is almost impossible to put any kind of restriction on social media. The question here arises is why is the State making this unpopular move that is surely not even liked by its voters and supporters? The timing of this latest crackdown is also important as it started immediately after the present Government somehow successfully resolved its differences over the news leaks issue with the defense establishment. The settlement of the Dawn Leaks issue between the Government and defense establishment resulting in the withdrawal of the controversial tweet brought lot of criticism on the current military top brass.
Though it was a very wise and right decision on the part of the Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa to not lock heads with the civilian Government over the news leaks issue, it was an unpopular decision for the supporters of the opposition parties. So what actually happened is that positions changed dramatically. The Government supporters who were criticizing the defense establishment over the news leaks issue by terming it a conspiracy on the part of the defense establishment to undermine the civilian Government, after the Dawn Leaks issue started praising the defense establishment and Army leadership. On the other hand the activists and journalists, who were all praising the defense establishment thinking that somehow Nawaz Sharif or his daughter Maryam Nawaz should be named in the news leaks, were frustrated and after the settlement of the issue started criticizing the defense establishment.
As soon as the opposition parties’ supporters and journalists turned their guns towards the Army for not acting as per their wishes the PMLN Government considered it a good opportunity to appease the defense establishment by announcing firm actions against the activists, bloggers and journalists criticizing the national institutions. Renowned human rights activist and senior lawyer Asma Jahangir strongly condemned the raid against social media activists and bloggers and asked the Government to appease the Defense establishment at their cost, not on the expense of common citizens. Her point is valid but the question is has the defense establishment really asked the Government to put restrictions on social media or to start a crackdown on social media activists and bloggers, as the timings of this crackdown do not suit the defense establishment’s purpose, actually suiting PMLN Government.
A politically fractured Prime Minister who is facing a Joint Investigaton Team (JIT) over the Panama Paper case and a Government faced with an electricity crisis and hostile opposition from Mr. Khan, with a relatively uneasy relationship with the defense establishment, are the beneficiary of this crackdown. Not only can this crackdown give them authority for the time being in manipulating social media and activists, it can also easily put the burning issues behind. Sadly, what the PMLN is unable to understand is that the power games cannot be won by oppressing people or sacrificing its own workers, nor can they be won by imposing restrictions on freedom of speech or expression. One wonders what makes Sharif think that by silencing his critics he can control the situation slipping from his hands just because of his advisors who are not able to understand the dynamics of the new global civilization and a newly formed political culture. The institutions who want unconditional respect for themselves need to understand that if they want a share in power then they too have to face criticism.
In any case this is also a lesson for the political activists who while in their blind love towards their parties or leaders usually just buy the propaganda of their own parties and neglect the truth or objective behind the propaganda, that politics is all about seizing power and to achieve this objective political workers and activists can be sacrificed. For Sharif supporters it is time to think that if a person like Pervaiz Rashid, who devoted all his life to the PMLN and faced the worst torture during the Musharraf regime, can be sacrificed then how will other political activists be spared. On the other hand, at least Mr Khan deserves applause for standing up for his social media activists and even making it clear to everyone that the public can criticize any institution. For Mr. Sharif the elections may not be a problem to win but democracy is not all about winning elections or building bridges and making roads if during his tenure citizens are not even given their basic right of freedom of speech and expression then there is no difference between him and a dictator like Musharraf.
For the institutions who want citizens to respect them it is high time they should stop interfering in politics directly or indirectly, and must let the people of Pakistan decide what is the national interest. It is time to understand that respect is always earned, not demanded. The rest of us knew right from day one that the cybercrime bill was passed not to protect the citizens from online fraud or harassment but was actually an attempt to put restrictions on free speech. Strange to see that the banned outfits and jihadist organizations are free to hold public gatherings and have no problem whatsoever in using social media to promote their agenda, but the citizens and activists who criticize policies or dissent with the Government or institutions are considered a threat to the National Interest. In any case the history of mankind is testament to the fact that humans never give away the freedom they earn. So instead of silencing critics and using citizens for their own vested interests, policy makers need to understand that oppression gives birth to reaction. The battles of ideologies are always won by the groups who have the power of logic and knowledge, not the guns or power of the Government.
Imad Zafar is a journalist based in Lahore. He is a regular Columnist/Commentator in newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, political, policies and media related think tanks.