Death is the only certainty in life and reminds us all that we all are just specks that go back to nature without fail. “I think therefore, I am” but when, in a country where the people that constitute its intelligentsia become a victim of systematic target killing, we might be nearing collective national suicide. Socrates knew who sentenced him to death. Bhagat Singh embraced death fully knowing who signed his death warrants. The Jews who were gassed during the Nazi regime knew who their killers were. Julius Fucik kissed death but he had no doubts about the identity of his killers. What is deplorable in Pakistan’s case is that while a large number of the brightest men and women of the country are being killed the identities of their killers remain largely unknown.
Such is the phenomenal growth of intolerance that everyone with a gun is ready to silence anyone who does not sound pleasant to one’s ears. The nuclear power status and Rs 700 billion expenditure on military were not enough to provide security to Sabeen who was promoting a culture of rational narrative on the issues confronting Pakistan. Soon after her murder certain sections of our media became active in promoting confusion by launching many conspiracy theories about her murder. The security establishment’s categorical denial about its alleged involvement cannot be outrightly dismissed. Their statement of dissociation would have carried greater weight, however, if the killers of Saleem Shahzad had been brought to justice. They would have sounded more plausible if the saga of Hamir Mir was not still fresh. I would have been more receptive to conspiracy theories if sometime back the young journalist Umer Cheema had not penned his story of kidnapping and torture. Perhaps murders of human rights activists also serve the far more important purpose of sending out a threatening message to the intelligentsia as a whole: you will be killed without a trace if you do not keep your mouth shut. Such ‘teach a lesson’ messages introduce a culture of self-censorship and force public figures to be economical with the truth.
While members of the intelligentsia are getting killed we hear of the Chinese economic corridor as a harbinger of infrastructure development. No doubt, economic development is closely linked with good quality infrastructure but the state seems to be less attentive to the need of intellectual infrastructure development. Almost all independent analysts and human rights groups are unanimous over the potential threat that certain sections of the proposed cyber-crime law pose to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Section 34 that appeared in the bill caused much alarm as it sought sweeping powers for the cyber policing authority to deal with the content appearing on the internet. Organisations like Human Rights Watch and Privacy International have condemned the bill for writing a blank cheque for abuse and overreach of blocking powers.
Today, at the time of writing of these lines, when I checked the bill that has been officially posted on the National Assembly website, its section 34 was about bailability of the offences and not about gagging the internet in the name of the glory of Islam. If the impugned section has been removed, as was suggested by me in my previous writing, I would say that some sanity has prevailed. Assuming it is still there I would like to respond to the official defence taken by the IT minister, Anusha Rehman, in a television talk show. Referring to the power of banning websites under Section 34 of the bill she relied upon Article 19 of the Constitution and contended that the said article authorised the draconian powers sought under Section 34.
No minister sahiba, you are over reading the exclusion clause of Article 19. Freedoms are protected by various laws in a country. In the UK there is no written constitution but still freedom of expression is protected by ordinary laws and conventions. Article 19 only excludes certain instances e.g. cases relating to religion or the security of Pakistan from the fundamental right protection guaranteed by the Constitution. However, it does not mean that ordinary laws and conventions cannot provide this protection. If the honourable minister is so keen on implementing constitutional provisions then more mandatory provisions of Article 62 should be first imposed on MNAs before trying to impose vague concepts like the “glory of Islam” upon ordinary writers and analysts. She should instead be protecting freedom of expression with ordinary laws to keep up with the evolving social consensus.
It is hoped that the present government’s commitment to physical infrastructure development will be replicated in the case of intellectual infrastructure development as well. It needs to dispel the widely held perception that the government has no strategic oversight of the secret agencies by bringing the killers of Sabeen to justice. It also needs to be more proactive in defending civil liberties and freedom of expression by ordinary laws rather than empowering government officials to become custodians of the internet.