End social media crackdown

Editorial by Daily Times

The crackdown on social media continues. Recent reports suggest that social media users, affiliated with the ruling party PML-N, have been arrested by the federal authorities. The issue remains shrouded in mystery, as there has been no word from the relevant authorities as to why these users were detained. It is surprising as well as worrying that Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was unaware of the development. In a tweet, he stated that it was being ‘investigated’ as to who ordered the arrests. That the Interior Ministry was not kept in loop by the federal investigation authority (FIA) or some other agency before formally arresting people for political activism is shocking. It might also suggest that the orders came from elsewhere. It is rather unusual for supporters of a ruling party to be detained for expressing their views on cyberspace.

Action against dissenters on social media has been going on for quite some time. In May this year, the FIA arrested and/or interrogated over 100 social media users and journalists for posting ‘anti-army’ content on social media. Ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed concern over the recent arrests of PML-N supporters and termed it ‘suppression of dissent’. He went on to say that curbing social media freedoms is unacceptable. The former PM is right — except that it took him long enough to take a principled position on the matter.

Nawaz Sharif should not forget that the drive against dissenters on social media started when Sharif was in office — back in January — after the abduction of 5 progressive social media activists who were later recovered (one of them is still missing) and had to move abroad. At that time, the former PM had taken no action against his own interior minister Chaudhry Nisar’s act of inciting violence against social media users by accusing them of blasphemy and treason. Didn’t the abductions and arrests threaten freedom of speech back then? The narrative created by the government, thanks to then Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s grave accusations against ‘liberal and secular’ elements of the country, led to the brutal murder of Mardan university student Mashal Khan on accusations of blasphemy on social media. Instead of learning lessons from the incident and undoing the narrative by warning people against the practice of taking law into their own hands, the PML-N government expanded the social media crackdown, with FIA issuing public messages asking people to report ‘blasphemous content’ online.

Had the PML-N government avoided choosing this dangerous path back then, it wouldn’t be facing the same today. However, it is still not too late. The new interior minister Ahsan Iqbal has been saying all the right things lately. He should clearly condemn the recent arrests and act to stop the FIA and other federal authorities from harassing and intimidating social media users. In a democracy, freedom of expression is an inviolable right of the citizens. *

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