By Talal Raza
According to World Press Freedom Index by Reporters with Borders, the press freedom rankings in Pakistan improved in 2017 and moved up the ladder from 147 in 2016 to 139 out of 180 countries.
Although, the media freedom may have improved, the recent onslaught against social media activists/journalists is a point of concern. In August 2016, the government opted for cyber-crime law that digital rights activists believed provided enough room to the government to abuse it to punish political dissent. At that time, the government downplayed the rights concerns. Instead, Minister of IT Anusha Rehman even accused civil society of perpetuating foreign agenda.
Later in January 2017, the dangerous game began after five bloggers mysteriously went missing. Soon after their abduction, an organized campaign allegedly by pro-establishment social media groups began that accused them of committing blasphemy. The bloggers were released after three weeks. Although, the debate at that point should have been why and who abducted them illegally; nobody seemed to be interested in digging deep into it. Some meager voices tried to point out the involvement of some elements within state institutions about the arrest of the bloggers for their anti-establishment rant over online media rather than blasphemy. However, our political parties for the most part chose to remain silent.
Fast forward to May 2017, the Nawaz-military deal to settle Dawn leaks issue didn’t go down well with opposition parties who always tacitly hoped and believed that army would undertake an adventurous coup to dethrone Nawaz. In the midst of this shock and confusion, when social media activists began to criticize and some even mocked the military establishment for displaying “weakness”, it infuriated the men in uniform. Soon the government swung into action and a sustained campaign of harassment of vocal social media critics began. Although no arrest was made, FIA summoned dozens of social media activists to inquire about their online activists and allegedly anti army rhetoric. In the aftermath of this, opposition parties especially PTI criticized the government and offered legal aid to the affected.
All this only points towards the dangerous trend within Pakistan where political dissent in online media is being rashly suppressed under different pretexts at times to protect religion and sometimes to safeguard the sanctity of the institutions. As some people rightly pointed out, at least the government should clarify the contours of state’s “sanctity” and also what would and would not come under “threat” to national security. Ironically, this clarity would never be brought as ambiguity conveniently allows government to punish anyone for either committing “blasphemy” or demeaning our “sacrosanct” institutions.
Furthermore, this repression is most likely to increase in the coming days. Even if government doesn’t end up punishing people for humiliating the so-called sanctity of institutions, the fear of getting arrested by the government has successfully scared off vocal critics to exercise self-censorship or face gallows. The need of the hour is that social media activists shun this air of harassment and continue to hold government accountable for their misadventures. In the meanwhile, if the government wishes critics to believe that It was genuinely cracking down on people for “demeaning” institutions or perpetuating foreign agenda, they should make the process more transparent to allow us to assess to what extent the government action was justified.