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Curbing freedom?

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s support for a tough new law to curb so-called ‘fake news’ on social media platforms is neither smart nor progressive.

It is hardly surprising that within hours of a new ordinance signed by President Arif Alvi in the past week to increase the punishment under an existing prevention of electronic crimes act or PECA, the media joint action committee led by Pakistan’s main stakeholders denounced the law and promised to oppose it.

Pakistanis must now brace themselves to face another Pandora’s box triggered by a tighter law promising punitive action against dissent. At a time when the government ought to focus on fundamental issues – notably revival of key areas tied to the broader but dysfunctional economy – this latest challenge to the media is simply unfathomable.

And tragically, this is not the first time that a government surrounded by self-created pitfalls has ventured out to tighten its hold around the messenger – the Pakistani media – in the hope of curbing dissent. But in years gone by, dissent under successive governments has only hardened in response to oppression targeting the press. An anecdote from the past may serve a useful lesson for policymakers.

In the darkest days for Pakistan’s freedom in the 1980s, keen followers of daily news in Islamabad routinely gathered every night at a beef ‘nihari’ shop in the capital’s bustling Aabpara neighborhood. They came together as the owner enticed them with the presence of a Sony transistor radio, faithfully broadcasting the BBC’s Urdu service flagship program-‘Sairbeen’ every night.

Then, ‘Sairbeen’ dominated the airwaves each night with its close reporting on Pakistan’s political trends in spite of official jammers seeking to block its signal. To preserve his own safety and that of his thriving business, the ‘nihari’ shop owner regularly sent a pot full of fresh ‘nihari’ with freshly baked ‘naan’ to the police SHO of the area, openly defying one of the toughest regimes in Pakistan’s history.

But there are other lessons too from Pakistan’s history, underlining the futility of curbs on the media. Pakistan has lived with the legacy of censors being slapped with an iron fist in the years gone by. As the news back then was kept out of daily newspapers and periodicals, the country saw the rapid growth of a fast paced rumor culture.

Today, the challenge of curbing free flow of information has become far more complicated. Social media platforms now being targeted by a government surrounded by more than a heap full of challenges are far too many to be easily curbed. Accounts with fake identities and dubious names are found in abundance all around. Meanwhile, material shared widely on WhatsApp groups and other sites has created a massive and constantly proliferating information jungle, raising a potential nightmare for anyone contemplating tight monitoring.

As the Khan government seeks to curb what it describes as ‘fake news’, it faces two compelling questions. On the one hand, is it just not beyond the scope of any ruling structure to mobilise the human resources necessary for monitoring each post on social media platforms in the hope of tightly curbing dissent? In pursuing a crackdown, its possible that well identified accounts of prominent users seeking to attract attention may well become visible and subsequently targeted under Pakistan’s tightened laws. But successfully targeting Pakistan’s ruling structure may indeed become the norm for a range of provocateurs, ranging from opposition politicians to activists, seeking to mask their true identities with dubious ones.

On the other hand, mounting criticism on different fronts coinciding with glaring holes in the government’s performance is far too visible to be easily ignored. As Prime Minister Khan’s government seeks to push the ‘sub acha’ (all is well) narrative intensely while refusing to acknowledge real life challenges across Pakistan, widening dissent is set to remain the norm.

Eventually, the solution to curbing dissent lies not in the threat of punitive action against free speech. It lies fundamentally with successfully meeting challenges in daily life, notably in areas like tackling runaway prices of daily food commodities – a trend that has fueled a very evident disapproval of the ruling structure.

As for a successful push to tackle gaps in areas like libelous content in the public space, Prime Minister Khan would gain far more mileage if his government would take the issue to the parliament for a detailed discussion followed by legislation.

Tragically for Pakistan, as the opposition clamors to build a political consensus in support of a vote of no confidence in parliament against Khan, the space for a consensus on any new legislation may be virtually absent for now. But curbing criticism through tough measures may have the opposite effect – that of provoking a more sustained backlash against a regime that many consider among the most inept in living memory.

Email: farhanbokhari@gmail.com

Farhan Bokhari, "Curbing freedom?," The News. 2022-02-23.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political consensus , Ruling structure , Politicians , Parliament , Economy , President Alvi , PM Imran Khan , Pakistan , SHO , PECA