When the entire state machinery turns against freedom of expression

Pakistan, in the national and international context, is going through crucial times. Military and civil forces are not on the same page on numerous internal and external issues. The state has badly failed to provide a unanimous narrative to counter extremism while critical state institutions including the army, judiciary, executive and parliament have been unable to reach any consensus against extremism.

But they have managed to mount an attack on freedom of expression.  The current crackdown against netizens and social media is underway which has tacit support from almost all the state’s organs. It is in this context that earlier this year Pakistan submitted a report to United Nations Human Rights Committee. The report is stunning. It says, “All citizens are free to express their opinion and views and, no case of reprisal, harassment or intimidation regarding disappeared persons, human rights defenders or lawyers has been reported to government authorities or other statutory bodies.”

Yet the facts, according to the government’s own institutions, clearly contradict the report. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), in a report submitted to the Supreme Court of Pakistan in January 2016, stated that it had blocked about 84,000 websites containing objectionable content.

The Federal Investigating Agency (FIA), in its report released to media in May 2017, disclosed that it had registered 114 cases in 2017 under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 while six bloggers (affiliated with government and opposition parties), accused of criticising the Army, were also interrogated after being taken in custody.

And as recently as May 30, FIA arrested social media activist, Adnan Afzal Qureshi, from Lahore for criticising the armed forces.

Human rights defenders, including Karachi-based Concerned Citizens of Pakistan, believe this is a crackdown by the elected government and not by the army. They say intelligence agencies are attempting to settle their own scores without involving FIA or police.

Media and rights activists believe that most of those accused of misusing social media are involved in criticising the PML-N Government, not the armed forces. And, they belong to the opposition parties.

Societal suffocation has already reached its peak in Pakistan. This kind of action will only serve to further reduce the tiny space for tolerance and jeopardise the infant democracy of Pakistan.

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