X restricted in Pakistan. What’s next for PTI supporters and the powers that be?

ON February 17, Saturday, Commissioner Rawalpindi Liaquat Ali Chatta made the bombshell allegations of rigging in General Elections 2024 and accused the Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja and Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa of being the main forces behind all that transpired on February 8 allegedly on the orders of the all-powerful establishment.

Shortly afterwards, the followers of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to express their outrage at what they called ‘blatant rigging’. According to the political party itself, the PTI allegedly won 170 out of 266 seats. It is a claim that has been, time and again, denied by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the caretaker government setup.

Panicked by the growing disapproval of the elections results on X, the caretaker government resorted to blocking the social media network in Pakistan in the last ditch effort hoping that it would help in cancelling the outside noise.

According to a study by SurfShark (whose website remains blocked in Pakistan), “Since 2020, Pakistan has exhibited a concerning pattern where internet restrictions are directly linked to opposition-related events. Notably, Pakistan is ranked fourth globally for total internet disruptions, with 17 documented cases, and third in Asia. Beginning from 2022, Pakistan has seen a series of internet clampdowns, with eight incidents all aimed at stifling the activities surrounding the opposition party. The years 2022, 2023, and 2024 have seen three, four, and one restriction so far respectively, most of which targeted social media or messaging services.”

While the powers that be took a sigh of relief momentarily, little did they know that Pakistanis have, by now, learned of the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and how they work – thanks to the constant blocking of social media platforms on one pretext or the other. And when that didn’t deter the PTI supporters and average Pakistanis from voicing their opinions, the prime minister office sprung into action.

The Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar issued a statement yesterday [Monday, February 19], calling the protestors a part of “violent gang”. He even went on to warn the “violent trolls” that “exemplary punishment” will be handed to them since they are “using different tricks including weaponisation of social media in blackmailing and pressurising civil servants to switch their loyalties from the State of Pakistan to the violent gang.”

He made it absolutely clear that the “action is clear violation of the Article 5 and other articles of the Constitution and the laws of the land” and that “the State of Pakistan shall defend the civil servants in discharging their constitutional duties” and act against the said “violent trolls”.

That the highest civilian office in Pakistan is being used to warn the average citizen is concerning and does not bode well for the future of freedom of speech in the country. If Pakistan is to prosper as a proper democratic country, the State and all its actors including politicians will have to learn the art of tolerance. Denying the right to expression is akin to silencing everyone by force.

The caretaker government setup must also realise that the blocking of the social media platforms is not the answer to its problems. The country has had its fair share of ridiculous bans on X, Facebook, TikTok, Wikipedia, and YouTube in the past. The intelligentsia must think of better ways to counter the opinions of its critics instead of blanket banning them all.

As for the PTI supporters, if they believe that they have a strong case against the alleged rigging, they must follow proper legal channels to fight their battle. Expressing one’s concern on any social media platform is everyone’s right but to stoop to the level of attacking people personally does not make for a convincing case. The PTI followers must exercise restraint and not go out on the streets as the country cannot have another episode of May 9 riots and the party itself cannot afford one more “false operation” against it.

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