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Sunday April 14, 2024

Muzzled nation

This current outage is thus tantamount to constricting the voice and right to organize peacefully of an entire nation for over a week without any explanation

By Editorial Board
February 28, 2024
X logo displayed on a laptop screen and X logo displayed on a phone screen. — AFP/File
X logo displayed on a laptop screen and X logo displayed on a phone screen. — AFP/File

It has been over a week and access to X, formerly known as Twitter, has still not been fully restored in Pakistan. According to at least one internet monitor, VPN services have also been restricted in the country, with those responsible for the outage seemingly leaving no stone unturned to shut Pakistanis out of the social media platform. The authorities are yet to provide any explanation for the continuing outage, which coincides with the PTI’s and others’ claims of rigging in the last elections. Previous disruptions to X/Twitter access have coincided with a PTI virtual jalsa last December and a PTI virtual fundraiser in early January. Though the Sindh High Court, after hearing a plea filed by multiple petitioners against the disruptions users have faced in accessing ‘X’ or Twitter, issued a directive for the authorities to restore access to the site this past Thursday (February 22), it appears to have had no impact thus far. It has not even elicited an explanation from the PTA or the IT ministry, with the former reportedly possessing the exclusive authority and capability to implement such a large-scale disruption. Both these entities, along with the state as a whole, are included as parties to the case in the aforementioned petition, which highlights that the PTA can only disrupt access to online content or information in a very narrow context and that such a widespread disruption is an unlawful violation of the people’s right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to receive information, guaranteed by Articles 19 and 19A of the constitution respectively.

Rigging allegations are nothing new in our electoral history, but the widespread availability of social media is, relatively speaking. Hence, unproven allegations and outright false information have a greater reach and potential impact than ever before. The events of May 9, 2023 were arguably a testament to the kind of frenzied mob rule that social media-fuelled misinformation can lead to. However, this does not justify the kind of blanket ban we are seeing right now. False claims should be addressed without compromising the rights of those who have nothing to do with them and those working hard to dispel them, all of whom share a site as large as ‘X’. Such widespread disruptions defang those with the knowledge and expertise to find and disseminate the truth, while fuelling perceptions that there must indeed be something to hide and a conspiracy in the works.

Aside from being crucial to nearly every service from news and banking to healthcare, the digital realm is also where citizens organize and engage with one another and the state in the 21st century. This current outage is thus tantamount to constricting the voice and right to organize peacefully of an entire nation for over a week without any explanation. The cruel irony of this latest outage is that it follows what is supposed to be a national exercise in people’s power. The only ones known to have circumvented the disruption so far are government officials, with the caretaker federal IT minister sharing numbers on the growth of the country’s IT industry during the relevant period. Apparently our IT exports have jumped by 32 per cent over the last two months. Imagine what those numbers could be if Pakistanis did not have to deal with unexplained disruptions like this.