PTI and free speech repression: That which comes back to haunt you

PTI and free speech repression: That which comes back to haunt you

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One side effect of power is that you feel it will last forever; the intoxication of it deranges the mind, breeding a sense of impunity and immunity. Unfortunately for those who hold the reins, the processing speed of power in Pakistan is short, leaving the once mighty stranded on the shoals once the tide of patronage recedes. And it always recedes.
What is left behind is a sense of shock and raging righteousness along with a visceral need to lay blame; and in the aftermath of the PTI’s somewhat surreal departure from power, there was plenty of blame to spread around. It was America’s fault, the narrative went, and of course the fault of the local traitors (the opposition and their supporters).
But the real ire in the narrative was reserved for the military for being ‘neutral’ as things went down. Naturally, this wasn’t going to be taken lying down by the many millions of supporters of the PTI and so, as if on cue, a hashtag campaign began against the army’s top brass, and in particular the army chief, General Bajwa.
Actions have reactions and in Pakistan’s interpretation of Newton’s law, the reaction came in the form of the FIA conducting raids and picking up social media activists from the PTI-- some of whom were released after having suffered a few hours of questioning and after deleting a few tweets. Authorities also reached the home of Arsalan Khalid, the former focal person on digital media for the former Prime Minister, and reportedly confiscated mobile phones from his family members. 

The first rule of power is that it is impermanent and the bloody instructions we teach always return to plague the inventor.

Zarrar Khuhro

Without the support of previously friendly state structures or a government shield to shelter behind, the aggrieved parties had no option but to do what countless others have done in the past: go to court. And here they were lucky enough to be heard by none other than Justice Athar Minallah who immediately ordered the FIA to stop harassing PTI activists and party workers. Ironically, this is the very same Justice Minallah who has in the past been the target of vicious smear campaigns by the PTI’s social media minions.
There’s more that the PTI has to be grateful for when it comes to Athar Minallah, and that is the fact that he struck down the draconian and frankly fascist amendments to the already draconian and fascist PECA law. While the original bill was bulldozed through parliament by the PML-N in 2016 (they were warned this would come back to haunt them but refused to listen), the ordinance promulgated by President Alvi would have led to further repression, and had Justice Minallah not struck it down on April 8, PTI activists would be facing far worse right now. 
The PTI should also be glad that they didn’t stay in power long enough for their own MNA Amjad Ali Khan’s bill to become law.
In April last year, Amjad Khan submitted a bill seeking to criminalize criticism of Pakistan’s armed forces, punishing it with two years in jail and a fine of up to Rs.500,000. The said bill was deadlocked in the standing committee of the interior and it took the chairperson, who also belonged to the PTI, to break the tie and approve the bill. In one regard, this was a missed opportunity as with the number of tweets being made criticizing the armed forces, we may well have generated enough fines to pay off at least part of the national debt.
But ‘missed opportunities’ could be the title of a docuseries on Pakistani politics. When they were in power, the PTI actively cheered on far worse actions taken against the very same people-- the ‘liberals’ they so hate-- who are principally condemning any oppressive actions taken against PTI activists right now. 
This is important because even now, the PTI’s online supporters keep one bloodshot eye on the hated ‘liberals,’ ‘leftists’ and human rights activists while demanding they join the condemnation chorus.
And the condemnation is there indeed. But if it is somewhat muted and contains caveats, that too is for a reason. And that reason is that when the boot was on the other foot, these very social media teams did not simply remain silent, they actively engaged in encouraging repression by labelling the targets ‘traitors’ and actively engaged in mocking and casting doubts on their claims. Those who were attacked, abducted, beaten and even shot, were called attention-seekers and accused of staging ‘dramas’ to malign the government and authorities. 
Now we see some of the architects of these campaigns cry out (and rightly so) for the due process they wanted to deny others during their short stint in power and one can only hope, no doubt in vain, that some realization of their own wrongs has set in.
The harassment, in particular of women journalists posting even mild criticism of the former government, followed a clear pattern: a sitting minister or high official would accuse said journalist of peddling fake news, of being on a payroll and so on and this would be immediately followed by an abusive onslaught by their online minions who would systematically target said persons with highly sexualized comments and even threats. 
In 2020, the Coalition for Women in Journalism appealed for political parties to adopt a code of conduct for their social media teams and for the government to take action against “those officials for whom there is evidence of directly or indirectly engaging in discrediting and harassing women journalists.” 
The first rule of power is that it is impermanent and the bloody instructions we teach always return to plague the inventor.

- Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro

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