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M. Usama Khawar |

Last month Pakistan’s government handed out its first death penalty for the charge of blasphemy online. While the question of the blasphemy law itself is a debate for another day, the underlying issue is how the country has been going down a spiral of increased surveillance for a while with no one questioning it. Other countries have had massive political uproars after the surfacing of their surveillance activities, yet Pakistan continues to persist in silence.

The actions of the government are unconstitutional, they limit our freedom, and can lead to the creation of a totalitarian world. We need to start talking about the rampant breach of our online privacy, and we need to do it before it’s too late.

Betrayal of the Constitution

The Constitution of Pakistan sets privacy as a fundamental right awarded to all citizens of the state. The apparent interpretation of this clause is that privacy is an inalienable right and can only be breached with a justified cause which is determined through a court warrant.

 “[t]he dignity of man and, subject to law, the privacy of home, shall be inviolable.”
Article 14(1) of Pakistan’s constitution

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016 which was part of the government’s efforts to boost surveillance in the National Action Plan (NAP) gave further liberty to the government to use surveillance mechanisms in order to tackle issues such as stalking, harassment, terrorist plotting and blasphemy on the internet. This, however, has been extrapolated to include various religious censorships as well and has thus resulted in the closing down various online blogs of iconoclastic nature. It has resulted in Pakistan seeing its first death penalty awarded to an individual on the basis of online blasphemy.

Read more: Pakistan: Big Brother is watching you!

The contradiction here is that the establishment’s actions seem to be breaching the constitutional right of privacy of our citizens. That is a good of a cause for uproar as any.

Betrayal of our trust

Pakistan has been accused numerous times of providing sensitive information about its citizens to foreign intelligence agencies such as the NSA of the United States. The ISI has been accused by the organization Privacy International of conducting unwarranted surveillance on its citizens on a very massive scale. The intelligence agencies have been spying on citizens under the pretext of state security without getting court warrants.

A Special Report by Privacy International highlighted that Pakistan is not only conducting mass surveillance on its population for its own purposes but is also a recipient of one of the highest amount of funds from the United States’ National Security Agency. The NSA was the very organization which caused a massive political scandal in the U.S after their unconstitutional proceedings were published by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

In the past few months, we have seen religiously related surveillances come on the rise especially after the death of Mashal Khan. The state is diving deeper and deeper into a situation in which all our words become scrutinized.

The birth of totalitarianism

The birth of a totalitarian state begins with the control over the information accessible to the public and the ability of the public to propagate information forwards. By having such surveillance programs, we limit the type and level of discourse possible in our society and thus are left in a homogenous bubble which the interest groups that wield power are able to control.

Read more: Pakistan: Big Brother is watching you!

“Over the past few years, it has become evident that governments around the world have taken liberties which were not theirs to take in the first place, completely disregarding the principles of human rights. Under the guise of “anti-terrorism” initiatives, Pakistan too has passed laws and policies that are excessive and violate civil liberties.” wrote digital-rights group Bolo Bhi

Democratic process requires a plurality of opinion; it requires the inclusion of points of views that we tend to disagree with. By have rational discourse on the topics, people are able to arrive at more rational conclusions about the world around them and so become better-informed votes. The limiting of opinions and information serves the purpose of blocking out ideas that would have otherwise added to the organic growth of society at large.

Read more: Crackdown on social media draws ire from all quarters

The use of state surveillance is indeed a slippery slope that can one day lead to even higher levels of information control. Right now we are passing through the stage of blocking out opinions that are contrary to our religious, political and nationalistic ideologies, but very soon we may be arriving at the stage at which merely questioning that censorship will also be silenced. The greatest deception may be that we tend to have a certain mental image of what a surveillance state looks like; but that image is misleading, we are being watched and monitored every single day, we just don’t know the importance of calling the government out for it.

It’s our fault

You dear reader, are to blame for this silence, and I am too. The educated and intellectuals of the country have the responsibility of raising alarm. The lack of literacy in this country means that the common man is naturally inclined to shove this off as a non-issue. We are privileged to be able to comprehend the importance of this issue, and it’s time we employed that privilege for good use.

The ruling class is an interest group of its own and it only serves the populous if the institutions in place limit the actions of those individuals. Our country lacks these institutions and so the responsibility lies on us to keep them in check. Accountability precedes effective and constitutional governance, and we are not doing anything to help the process. Organizations such as Bolo Bhi have been calling for this sort of activism for ages, but we have been ignoring their warnings.

Read more: Why is PEMRA not playing its actual role?

Every single day the number of internet and phone users in the country is increasing, and with this increment comes greater incentive to control the users. It is our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

M. Usama Khawar is an undergraduate student currently pursuing a degree in the Social Sciences from The Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. His writing interests are vast, ranging from culture to philosophy to psychology.

M. Usama Khawar is an undergraduate student currently pursuing a degree in the Social Sciences from The Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. His writing interests are vast, ranging from culture to philosophy to psychology.

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