Recent days have seen a debate about the code of conduct for social media users in the country. Strict action has been demanded by leaders against blasphemous content and that threatening terror or the state. The ruling of Islamabad High Court’s Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, the Punjab government directives and the interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s emphasis for a joint strategic remedy for the OIC Arab League only reinforces the fears borne from the controversial cybercrime bill from August 2016 and endangers the space for tolerance in the society.
Such events disturb intellectuals, rights’ and social media activists alike among thinking Pakistanis for several reasons. First, it is feared that such are cloaked attempts aimed at curtailing free speech and dissent in the country. Curtailing of free speech and dissent could breed a culture of fear like in dictatorial states where people even discontinue critical thinking for fear of being reported.
Second, Human rights activists should worry that while they had been actively advocating free expression and campaigning against persecution and or disappearances of media personnel and bloggers, some of whom are still missing, making a criminal offence punishable for criticism of the government, whistleblowing or offering a different mindset could seriously jeopardies the truth seekers from supporting and seeking justice for our citizens. A similar fate awaits the rights’ activists who report crimes against the minorities in an effort to protect democracy.
Third, election year is around the corner and the campaigning has already begun on social and news media. This campaign is also unique in the history of Pakistan because while the last elections were famed for the online media trials, netizen are keeping tabs on the promises and delivery of the political individuals and parties for 2018. An attempt to criticise political dogmas in the past has earned individuals and parties labels of terrorism and even treason. There’s no assurance that online election campaigning would provide a safe turf for well-meaning critics now.
Fourth, the right’s movement to ensure free speech in the country has had a long and bloody history. We have witnessed strangulation of showbiz stars and murder of political leaders, to say the least, for speaking out their minds. Chaudhry Nisar expressed his wish to take the matter to UN, but before he does that he must listen to the stakeholders whose suggestions were conveniently kept out of the cybercrime bill. For a large population of social media users no definition of the state security and other blanket terms is offered. In the meantime Nawaz Sharif, his ilk and the weepy judge may be praiseworthy for some but a majority of patriotic Muslims need to know where their allegiances lie.
True, cases of media misconduct foster hate crimes. Pakistan government should also announce a policy to deactivate and punish the hatemongers adhering to banned religious organisations that acquire new web addresses and continually resurface indoctrinating and damaging younger generations with their propaganda.