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January 18, 2017
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Missing bloggers and absent wisdom

Opinion

January 18, 2017

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Several days past the disappearance of five bloggers – one of whom is said to be a polio patient – there is no confirmed news about their whereabouts. There are general guesstimates, many statements by government officials and yet again warfare proliferating across numerous platforms.

News reports expanded into tell-tale stories, inferences and extrapolations and the social media postings of the bloggers who had been picked up affected the divide along the many shades of opinions and emotions that exist within our society on religious, political and ideological lines. Those outraged on both sides of the divide have battled among themselves using mostly social media platforms – lashing out generously at each other.         

The state opted to remain silent. It perhaps believed it had another obligation – one for the larger good of society – and that it had acted in good faith and picked up these bloggers to ensure ‘peace and security’ in society. These assumptions have also been at work in Balochistan and in other counterterrorism operations. Have they worked? Have they delivered ‘peace and security’? There is no concrete answer.

In some cases of counterterrorism, it may have worked to some extent but we know midnight or mid-day disappearances – unless followed by early information on who, why and what next – can generate considerable ill- will and resentment. Citizens being sucked into dark holes by the state provides no security cover for society or credibility and authority for the state. Absence of factual information ends up creating more hate and anger, as social media activists with diverse views cross swords with each other.      

While we know that an application to file an FIR – on blasphemy charges – against the missing bloggers has been received by a police station, people with diverse shades of ideological and political orientations are also levying different charges against the bloggers. Meanwhile their families, activists and politicians have made efforts on multiple fronts including courts, media, parliament and the streets for their return.

The initial reaction from the government was one of bewilderment, with senior officials asking us about the details of those who have disappeared. Soon it was clear that the bloggers were picked up by state agencies. However, several days into their disappearance no elected minister was able to inform the family or the public what had transpired. The bloggers had been picked up from Islamabad and from two cities of Punjab. But no one within the civilian government bothered to find out what had happened to these five citizens. There was no realisation that it is the state that is, under Article 10 of the
constitution, responsible for the
security of its citizens.        

Finally, in response to demands by activists and parliamentarians in the mainstream and social media, the interior minister announced that he would locate Salman Haider, one of the missing. The interior minister promptly set up a four-member inquiry committee headed by an SP to find out the whereabouts of the bloggers. On day three, I was told by one of the committee members that they were still “blind”. When I asked if they had interacted with any state agency, I was told that the committee members had asked that members of the intelligence agencies should also be made part of the committee.

There is now talk of the law under the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance that allows the arrest of citizens who are seen to threaten national security, are involved
in terrorist activities and cause
disrespect to Islam, the army and the judiciary.

Clearly such a law may be there but arbitrary application of such a law is unlikely to contribute to security and harmony within society and indeed between state and society.   

The vanishing of a citizen into a dark hole, followed by a mysterious silence, will generate greater chaos and anger. Indeed the force available with the state will ensure that amateur activists cannot harm the state in response to such mysterious and secret moves. Yet it raises questions of the illogic of action and thought that the state employs in search of security. Such actions diminish the credibility of the state as a neutral actor dedicated to promoting citizens security and welfare.     

If the state seeks, as it must, to ensure that it is able to balance its role of upholding the constitution and providing space to the citizen to enjoy the freedoms that are enshrined in the constitution, then it must be wiser. This does not only require that information about the bloggers’ arrest should have been made public but also that the state must be seen to act fairly across the board. The law cannot be applied selectively on what bloggers post and on the action by extremist groups spreading hate, fear and indeed violence.        

The disappearance of the bloggers has thrown up issues that point towards the need to understand the complexity of matters of the state. Unless the architecture for security within society is coherent and cohesive, there will always be contradictions. Such contradictions as have been experienced in the case of the sudden and covert arrests of the bloggers create confusion and doubts in the minds of the citizens of Pakistan. In an age of social media, and increasingly the transformation of the keyboard into a platform of   expression, the business of state and society has become extremely serious. It no longer suffices to take action in an ad-hoc, unthinking or unexplained and non-transparent way. Such an approach will multiply chaos and discontentment within society.

Society, specifically those sections that fall within the expanding bandwidth of social media, requires a leadership which for now seems to be missing. Until such a leadership emerges, any problem within the context of society will always snowball into chaotic and antagonistic thought and action. The absence of clarity and communication from the state and the government has led to volatility in society – as also has the contradictory messaging by even cabinet members. The latest controversy around the interior minister differentiating between the nature of extremist groups would be then differentiating between types of hate and violence too.

Pakistani state, society and politics require an end of adhocism, rhetoric and conspiratorial approaches to internal security. They require genuine and uniformly applied rule of law. If lessons from past blunders are to be learnt then the way these bloggers were picked up must be abandoned for the future. There needs to be transparency and credibility in state action.

In this age of extremism, and proliferation of various kinds of platforms, how and to what extent narratives that violate law and societal sensitivities can be controlled is a fundamental question that needs to be addressed.    

Instead of addressing fundamental issues through an informed debate we see the application of crude power in the name of security.         

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra

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