Being a country that has spent vast periods of time under military dictatorships, Pakistan is no stranger to despotism; even its democratic leaders have a tendency to act like kings – living aloof lifestyles, establishing dynasties and ruthlessly silencing dissent. The last democratic government, the first one to complete its term, lived a negotiated existence, always looking over their shoulders to keep the deep state at bay. This government is finding itself slowly squeezed out of power; the soft coup of last year is getting harder, and the civil society can only helplessly watch the spectacle unfold. The battle against despotism is also being fought on a much more immediate, human level – the battle for the freedom of expression; one that will ultimately decide the future of this country. One gets the sense that Pakistan stands at a crossroad of sorts; on one hand stands an independent media, which is armed with modern technology and the might of the internet, presenting a bustling counter-narrative, and constantly questioning government action. On the other hand, the forces of censorship are arrayed rank after rank; the loose cannon that is PEMRA and its unchecked powers, a community ready to scream ‘blasphemy’ at the slightest provocation and a media blanket on Balochistan and FATA – enforced by endless bullets. This is more a desperate resistance than a real contest, and recent legislation seeks to eliminate even that.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, 2015 was recently approved by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information Technology and forwarded for the final vote. The bill has drawn fierce attacks from both mainstream parties, civil society and rights activists, which correctly criticise it for being a draconian bill which will give the government unfettered power to censor all forms of public dialogue and commentary. Not only that, it allows the government to search electronic devices without a proper warrant and stop individuals from accessing “unauthorised” information; essentially negating the constitutionally protected right to information. While the government has decided to review the bill and entertain suggestions from all stakeholders in the face of opposition, there is no guarantee that it will make any substantial change to it. As internet neutrality legislation sagas around the world demonstrate, such despotic bills are blocked by public outrage on the first attempt, but once the pressure dies down and the opposition gets busy congratulating each other on a job well done, a renamed and slightly modified bill is introduced, which sneaks through the parliament unnoticed. The nation must stay vigilant, and see this particular battle through. While such oppressive laws are proposed, legislation that seeks to increase accountability by providing the public access to government departmental records gathers dust in the federal cabinet. The PPP has rightly reminded the government of its promises to implement the Right to Information (RTI) Bill, and it is of utmost importance that the civil society and rights activist get behind this call. The battle lines are drawn, we just need to pick our sides.