On Online Silence

Sindh High Court’s instruction to restore select internet-run social me­dia platforms (largely X) immediately shows a shared concern over the disruption in access to X. Hearing three different petitions filed on the disruption of cellular services before elections, on the election day and now for the last six days, the Chief Justice of the SHC gave remarks on this very undemocratic culture of silencing people’s voice and their right to ex­change views online. Suspension of the largest news-sharing platform at a time when government formation is in process is no less than separating people from the very process in which they are key stakeholders.

The censure by the highest provincial court regarding sporadic internet disruptions and outages states the critical importance of upholding fun­damental rights, including freedom of information and freedom of speech, guaranteed by the constitution. If people cannot see and discuss the gov­ernment in the making, then the electoral process, which is already high­ly contested, remains only a lip service to democracy. The voices on social media regarding alleged rigging in the elections caught the eye of interna­tional media and observers. But the X blackout is further drawing that at­tention and not to the country’s good.

It is hopeless to assume that by shutting down X people will overnight develop acceptance for the coalition-in-making. The justification provid­ed by authorities citing national security concerns raises questions about the balance between security measures and citizens’ rights. Shying away from accountability in the name of holding the national interest supreme is more damage to the national interest inadvertently. The court’s firm stance in demanding accountability and transparency from relevant au­thorities is commendable, highlighting the judiciary’s role in safeguard­ing constitutional rights in the digital age.

But there is only so much the judiciary can do. From cellular services suspension on election day to the ongoing X shutdown, the authorities are setting bad precedents. If anything, with every minute that goes by, the pillar of fundamental rights of citizens and their constitutional guaran­tees becomes more shaky. Incitement of hate in online spaces is a concern that even the most stable democracies of the world encounter. But the an­swer does not lie in cutting down access. Pakistanis are entitled to have a say in the political process. If that process sidelines them, one wonders what may become of the contract between the people and the state and on whose behalf will the new government rule.

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