Crackdown on social media misuse
Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has a way of making provocative pronouncements, but his latest remarks seem to have caused unwarranted concern among the rights activists. Speaking on the serious issue of religious extremism and counter-narrative at the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Studies, he announced that a crackdown would be launched in the next few weeks against those using social media for malicious purposes. Already some arrests have been made, he said, over issuance of decrees (fatwas) propagating extremist narratives and hurling threats on social media, and that “the state will not allow extremists to dictate their narratives by use of force.” Few can find fault with this statement or his argument that “dialogue is the basic principle of [a democratic)] society, but extremists do not take part in debates.”
Needless to say, freedom of expression is one of the core values of democracy; however, there is no such thing as unbridled freedom. No one has a right to infringe on another person’s rights. As a popular aphorism goes, “my liberty ends where your nose begins.” What is at stake in the present situation is the life and liberty of the people the state is duty-bound to protect. Even under normal circumstances, democracies do put limits on expressions related to issues such as national security, hate speech, public order and pornography. Already in this country there are laws that prohibit hate speech. Also, the political consensus-based National Action Plan bans glorification of terrorists and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media, and calls for strict action against publication of material that promotes hatred, extremism, sectarianism and intolerance.
As for the rights groups’ apprehension that the government might curb the citizens’ rights on the pretext of checking extremism, it is understandable to some extent given its insistence to install a media oversight body, Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, which is rightly seen as an attempt to impose censorship on the media. The present case, though, is different in that no new law is on the anvil. Aside from other hate speech laws, there is the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, which specifically deals with cyber crimes. What is new, as the minister explained, is that the government now wants to build the capacity of relevant departments so they can monitor social media, trace fake accounts and prosecute those who break the law. A working group, led by the Federal Investigation Agency and including other agencies, has been formed, and a mechanism devised to curb hate speech on social media. It is high time that resolve is translated into action. The state must control and punish those who instigate violence, causing harm to the people and the country.