After nearly a week (and more) since Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza Naseer have been missing, the issue has captivated the attention of international rights bodies and media outlets alike, with the United Nations now also calling on Pakistani authorities to expedite the process of recovering the activists.

As pointed out by the UN Special Rapporteur, the space for expressing one’s thoughts and beliefs does not create itself – the state has to actively work towards granting this to the public and ensuring that no one takes it away from the citizens. But in the case of Pakistan, there have been so many cases of state-sponsored repressive tactics to stifle free speech, that it no longer comes as a shock to most if the state is directly or indirectly involved in enforced disappearances of this nature. Not only that, but with false allegations of blasphemy against the missing activists being thrown about carelessly on social media, it is clear that the space for public expression can easily be overtaken by nefarious elements.

Even if we assumed that these ‘disappearances’ have nothing to do with the state institutions – a conclusion one can only come to after deeming all state institutions almost completely inept because their lack of progress on the recovery efforts so far – the problem is that the international community might not share this view. From the outside looking in, this seems like the actions of a repressive state, looking to suppress dissenting voices to cement its control over the populace. Perception matters, and even if Pakistan’s institutions were completely uninhibited with regards to providing intrinsic freedoms to the people, the collective disappearance of four activists in the space of a couple of days – that too from the capital or other major cities – is not likely to inspire confidence in Pakistan’s democratic principles outside this country, or lend us any support when we raise the issue of Kashmir rights or Indian aggression at international forums.

As always, the news of missing activists is making headlines in neighbouring India, which is never a good thing for Pakistan. The Indian media only features news which portrays Pakistan in a negative light. Everyone that has ever expressed an opinion contrary to the state-sponsored one now has a target on their backs, and everyone from journalists, activists and lawyers to the average concerned citizen feels unsafe. State action is the only thing that can help this atmosphere of intolerance and fear to dissipate, and that means the safe return of the missing activists.