Pakistani democracy does not deserve a gag order
Why does the Pakistani state so badly, and almost perpetually, want its citizens to sit down and stop talking? This is an unavoidable question begging for an answer right now, considering a flurry of decisions and actions over the past few days that reflect the seriousness of this undue endeavor by a government with barely a fortnight’s tenure left to it. Why should it spend its last few days limiting the most fundamental rights of freedom of expression and access to information instead of expanding their remit in a troubled society?
The cabinet of the federal government led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has in the space of a week approved changes in at least three laws and proposed two new laws that all aim to curb free speech, limit access to information and dramatically promote censorship. The grim seriousness by way of which this blitzkrieg running counter to constitutional guarantees has taken place, opens a road that leads to institutional authoritarianism aimed at scaring the people into silence. This is hardly a textbook precursor to the political reset that are the upcoming national elections due in the next 100 days.
The brutal answer to the central question here is that the censorial efforts are aimed at influencing both the process of elections – including the political communication and narrative expected to drive them – and whatever political stage is being prepared in their aftermath. We may not be certain what is in store on the elections front, but we can be pretty sure no rightful or due criticism about what is going on and what happens next will be a part of it.
The nature of the proposed legal changes is hugely indicative. Controversial amendments have been proposed in the law relating to the electronic media regulator, the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act – all of which criminalize disinformation and misinformation and raise penalties manifold on sharing “unauthorized information” relating to Pakistan’s powerful security establishment.
Aimed at reigning in errant security officials who speak when not authorized, the changes implicate any media coverage of them and puts journalists and social media at equal risk in terms of legal culpability with high penalties. Then two new laws – ‘e-safety law’ and ‘data security law’ – similarly aim to exert control on publicly-driven online content and expression.
Pakistan can’t be both a democracy and dictatorship.
If enforced as approved, all these thinly disguised anti-free speech proposals will legalize coercive actions against discussions of not just security issues in formal and informal media, social media and public forums, but most political and economic issues as well. The security establishment is now part of a structure called the “Special Investments Facilitation Council” which legalizes an equal military role in economic and governance affairs. How can the media – or indeed citizens – avoid discussing the military when the subject under legitimate discussion is governance?
The fact that the two new laws also require registration of private websites (including independent media) and even social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter (now ‘X’) and YouTube (by forcing these giants to open shop locally and make data accessible locally) means industrial-scale censorship is imminent. This puts an end to any hopes of an open society and plural discourse, and undermines the already fragile democracy in Pakistan which cannot flourish if people are gagged by force of law.
A dictator may not be in power right now but considering the new censorship regime, one may as well be. The political parties of Sharif and Bhutto, who are in power, used to mock the preceding government of Imran Khan, who attempted to enact a similar censorship regime. They have succeeded where he failed. The irony is lost on them.
The changes to Pakistan’s free speech must be reversed and put up for wider consultation with a broad array of stakeholders, including the citizens of Pakistan represented through civil society, in a transparent process. This consensus should then be properly debated in the parliament – preferably an incoming parliament with a five-year mandate rather than one on its way out – before being finalized and approved. One-sided, rushed and hushed legislation is antithetical to democracy and hurtful to people’s interests. Pakistan can’t be both a democracy and dictatorship.
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.