On Thursday the Interior Ministry ordered the shutdown of the International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO), Save the Children, and ordered the expulsion of all the expatriate staff. And while the move seems odd –why would an organisation helping needy children draw the ire of the government – the Interior Minister, Chaudry Nisar, had a reason; the same reason that is used to silence all walks of activities in Pakistan: “protection of state interests”. The move heralds the beginning of a tighter regime regarding INGOs, which will be extensively monitored and vetted from now on. The government’s initiative does carry a measure of rationality and the Interior Minister’s statements do seem reasonably balanced, yet it is the implementation of this initiative which raises concerns regarding the government’s attempts to stifle discourse and discourage dissent – the two necessary conditions of a working democracy.

“We don’t want to put a ban on any NGO but we want to compel them to work under their charter”; the statement by the Interior Minister sums up the government’s policy. If viewed objectively – which translates to ‘removed from the realities of the Pakistani state’ – the requirement seems justified. NGOs operate under special laws, frequently employ foreigners, often draw funding from foreign sources and have access to areas and records which the common man does not; combined with a limitless charter, it is easy to see how they can be used to carry out covert operations, such as the alleged use of NGOs to carry out fake vaccinations programme to scout for Osama Bin Laden. Asking NGOs to stick to the purpose of their formation seems a reasonable way of dealing with such concerns; although it might cause some daily operational inconvenience for the organisations –what activity falls under the charter, which falls out of it and what to do with the ones in the grey areas?

Yet, in the midst of reasonability, the government reveals the unreasonable; the Minister mentioned NGO’s who were “reporting stories from Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan which were based on lies” and others who were “defaming Pakistan through superficially conducted studies”. He went on to warn that “capital punishment is in accordance with the law while criticism against judiciary will not be tolerated in this regard”. Now this is a completely separate issue from stopping NGOs to conduct covert operations; this is an attempt to muzzle the organisations that criticise the government and its policies. It seems that under the guise of a legitimate cause the government will shut down any organisation that reveals the injustices committed by the state. How long before the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is shutdown for criticising state policies, how long before Amnesty International is asked to leave? The government must restrict its actions to true offenders, and allow genuine organisations to continue working while letting criticism flow. At the end of the day, these organisations help thousands that are beyond the government’s reach.