Be ready for the fight of ideas

September 18, 2016

The new law is dangerously vague

Be ready for the fight of ideas

Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 is an example of the state lining an entire building with TNT when refurbishing a couple of rooms could have done the job.

The law, as enacted, was not born out of thin air. This legislation’s journey represents two stories; one inspires hope and the other represents, as one would expect, the triumph of state sponsored narratives.

Let us begin with hope. Pakistan’s civil society, and its breed of digital rights activists, worked tirelessly with legislators, industry experts, businesses and ordinary citizens to spread awareness about this law as it was drafted and initially tabled. These people have not done this in the expectation of any reward but only because these adherents of democracy felt a calling to make clear the far-reaching impact of this law.

Time and again these voices combined to ensure that the ruling party did not, indeed could not, turn a deaf ear to those protesting. Of course the lazy cynics would say that the final version of the law is still no poster for liberals to brandish. But only the ill-informed would say that -- anyone who has read a newspaper in the past year will see how legislators in both houses pushed themselves and others, with the support of young activists, to raise serious questions about the law. This of course does not include government legislators who, for better or worse, towed a line laid down for them.

The greatest victory of the civil society and legislators who opposed this law is that they managed to ignite a serious conversation about the law -- the discourse may not have been very academic but it has been present in Facebook memes, social media posts, newspaper columns, seminars as well as casual conversations. That is how discourse evolves. Enactment of a law should not be seen as a defeat for those who believe in free speech -- it should be seen as an exhortation to continue and shape the conversation.

The state has been lagging behind in this debate on how technology and its use should be policed. However, in recent times it has benefited from greater attention to this area. Very cleverly the state has made use of people’s calls for greater protection against online bullying and harassment to engineer a new sphere of influence -- going far beyond what anyone imagined.

As I have written before in this space, calling on the state to protect you against speech that makes you uncomfortable is an invitation for the state to assume and appropriate greater power. It will never say no. Many have called on the state to protect them and, in the garb of that promise, the state will now gag a significant amount of speech. For those who believe in free speech there is a great lesson in this: the state should be the last place you should look towards when you want certain speech to be sidelined. Hopefully this lesson will inform activism in the future. Even as extremists threaten activists, the state should only step in to prevent imminent violence or actions that go beyond speech.

As long as the law exists on the statute book, all of us are under danger of being hauled up. In an age where everyone with a social media account is a broadcaster, the state can easily pick and choose what kind of discourse to actively attack -- and do so in phases.

The new law is dangerously vague in many respects. Is satire or parody now punishable? Arguably yes but many will adopt the wait-and-see approach before challenging this new law. This is an uncomfortable space for a citizen to be in -- since none of us know what will trigger the state into oppressive action under this new law. Is advocating the innocence of someone convicted after a sham trial now glorification of terrorism? What does that mean for human rights defenders?

Keep in mind also that we are not the only country in the world confronting such difficult issues. Even the Supreme Court of the US has upheld laws which aimed to curb material support of terrorism -- the speech versus action distinction is of course important but the law of incitement, even in the US, has taken a regressive hit. Once states proclaim that they are out to counter terrorism, many of those who matter in battles of ideas become cautious. The idea, therefore, is to separate the noise from the nuanced debate. While no responsible citizen would support terrorism itself, speaking up for due process should not be equated with glorification of terrorism. We are better than that. Or at least should hope to be.

Another serious danger is self-censorship. No one likes a knock on the door in the middle of the night or skipping work to attend inquiries or court hearings. Regardless of how the law is implemented in the coming days, we can expect fear rather than certainty to prevail. As long as the law exists on the statute book, all of us are under danger of being hauled up. In an age where everyone with a social media account is a broadcaster, the state can easily pick and choose what kind of discourse to actively attack -- and do so in phases.

Yet one must not despair. Democracies are messy -- and thank god for that. The battle of shaping and controlling narratives as well as discourses are shaped over generations. No one promised us an easy ride and, thankfully, few in Pakistan expect one. So the Pakistani citizen should be ready for the fight of ideas in the long run.

And those who are too cynical to believe that discourse and activism matters: you were irrelevant before and will remain so now. You matter neither to the state nor the activist citizen -- and the dialogue between these two will shape our collective future.

Be ready for the fight of ideas