THE arrest of a journalist in Quetta on Sunday illustrates the extent to which the legislation on electronic crimes can be used to stifle dissent.
Zafarullah Achakzai, a reporter for a Quetta-based daily, was taken into custody by security personnel in plainclothes, a questionable modus operandi in itself, and charges were filed against him by the FIA under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016.
Mr Achakzai’s ‘crime’, according to his family, was to have posted comments against “national security institutions” on social media.
His remarks were critical of the police for having arrested MPA Majeed Achakzai after a traffic policeman in Quetta was run over by a four-wheeler apparently driven by the legislator.
In the process, the reporter also questioned the competence and integrity of the security agencies, in particular the Frontier Corps which is at the forefront of law-enforcement in Balochistan.
One may disagree, even vehemently, with Mr Achakzai’s opinions. For him to be arrested for expressing them, however, is taking things too far.
Rights campaigners fought an extended and ultimately futile battle against the more draconian provisions in the electronic crimes bill before it was passed last year.
Civil society’s misgivings, particularly over those sections of the law that were vaguely worded and could thus be liberally interpreted to intimidate citizens, were clearly justified.
Many branches of the state apparatus do not always function according to acceptable standards.
Are the people of this country, ostensibly a democracy, not entitled to the democratic freedom to speak their minds?
Speech that incites violence or hatred is one thing, but to clamp down on criticism, valid or otherwise, of institutional shortcomings is quite different.
Moreover, even though he was acting in a personal capacity on this occasion, Mr Achakzai’s arrest also raises concerns about the media’s watchdog role.
After all, it is often reporting by journalists that results in uncomfortable questions being asked of the authorities, an inconvenience that an increasingly authoritarian state would surely be pleased to do away with.