Back when the cybercrime bill was first mooted and debated, critics of the proposed law repeatedly pointed out how its vague wording and broad jurisdiction represented a clear danger to freedom of expression and belief in Pakistan. While the official rationale for introducing the law focused on how the state required greater powers of digital surveillance and punishment to combat terrorism and deal with rapidly evolving forms of electronic crime, events since the adoption of the cybercrime bill have shown that fears regarding the law were well-founded. Rather than helping to smash terrorist networks or deter criminals, the cybercrime bill has been consistently used to justify an increasingly draconian crackdown on social media, with the government demonstrating a worrying capacity to stifle any forms of dissent or opinion that its finds problematic.

Pakistan is not unique in its attempts to police the internet. When internet usage first became widespread in the 1990s, it and its attendant technologies were widely heralded as harbingers of a new age of transparency and accountability, with free and easy access to information, unencumbered by borders or attempts at censorship by governments, providing the people of the world with the means through which to scrutinise those in power. It was believed that lowering barriers to communication would foster tolerance and understanding across the globe, and that a digitally empowered citizenry would be able to look beyond old state-sponsored narratives and propaganda when engaging with politics. The perceived difficulty of regulating the internet also led to the idea that it could be used a powerful took for mobilisation, enabling people to circumvent traditional forms of coercive state power, such as the police, in their attempts to exchange idea and organize for collective action.

Today, at a time when the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump stand out as the most obvious symbols of how misinformation and bigotry can sway popular opinion, the utopianism that accompanied the birth of the internet has slowly come to be replaced by an increasing recognition of how it is, at best, a double-edged sword. It is true that the internet has made it easier to access and disseminate information, but this has also meant the proliferation of ideas and values that are from progressive. The internet does facilitate interaction across borders and cultures, but it also leads to the creation of digital echo chambers in which confirmation bias and membership within a particular ideological ecosystem leads to a hardening of extant attitudes. Social media has made it possible for everyone to express an opinion, but the same tools allowing people to be heard are now used by governments across the world to monitor and silence dissent.

Since the start of the year, the PML-N government has deployed the Interior Ministry to clamp down on allegedly blasphemous content on social media as well as, more recently, criticism of the military. The first of these crackdowns came soon after the disappearance of several progressive bloggers who were widely believed to have been picked up by state agencies and while they were eventually released without charge, the campaign against them on social media, as well as wanton allegations of blasphemy, prompted the government to essentially legalize religious vigilantism by calling on citizens to report people suspected of posting blasphemous material online. These measures were accompanied by thunderous speeches by the Interior Minister in which he vowed to defend the sanctity of Islam at all costs but more than anything else, the government’s actions seemed to be geared towards little more than either appeasing the powerful religious right or, alternatively, doubling down on the use of Islam as a legitimating political ideology.

More recently, following the military’s withdrawal of its tweeted criticism of the government’s response to the Dawn Leaks inquiry, the FIA has swung into action to arrest and interrogate social media activists who were critical of the military’s apparent policy reversal. Justifying these actions in the name of national security, the government has repeatedly claimed that it is only interested in punishing those accused of being behind an organized and orchestrated attack on the armed forces. In reality, this has provided a pretext to disproportionately target people aligned with different opposition parties as well as relatively high-profile journalists. Again, the ‘crime’ that has allegedly been committed is nothing more than the expression of a political opinion. Some might find the opinion in question incorrect, distasteful, or even offensive, but that could be said of virtually any set of beliefs or ideologies.

Part of the problem here is the way in which Article 19 of the Constitution explicitly imposes limits on free speech in Pakistan, providing the government with considerable leeway when determining whether or not citizens can be prevented from, or punished for, expressing themselves when it comes to questions related to Islam, national security, foreign relations, and ‘morality’. Exactly what the limits are or should be is question that has never really been debated in a meaningful way, with the state continuously using its power to impose top-down restriction on free speech that are inevitably shaped by politics rather than principle. Evidence for this is not difficult to find; while the Interior Minister continues to solemnly profess that the measures being taken are vital to the security of Pakistan and Islam, nary a word is said about the disturbingly enormous amounts of hate speech that are freely and constantly articulated in traditional and social media. The definition of blasphemy has been stretched so thin in Pakistan that almost anything someone says can become the basis for persecution, and even the slightest criticism of the military can be cause for concern, but if you happen to advocate the genocide of religious minorities, or justify the oppression of women, or gleefully endorse terrorism in the name of Islam, the Interior Minister will champion your right to free speech!

The latest crackdown on social media represents yet another attempt by the government and establishment to consolidate their power to control the public discourse in Pakistan. This must necessarily be resisted, not because those being targeted are correct, but because debate and accommodating a plurality of opinions and viewpoints is fundamental to any tolerant, democratic society. As it is, the path the government is going down is one that can very quickly become a slippery slope.