Curbing democratic freedom on pretext of security

The extent of the federal government’s cognitive dissonance on matters pertaining to internal security is clear if one reads Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s latest directive alongside the National Internal Security Policy document prepared by his ministry in 2014.

Post-APS there has been some measure of consistency in the state’s policy and actions insofar as identification of security threats is concerned. For instance, the aforementioned policy and a national action plan are both unequivocal in identifying religious extremism and terrorism among primary threats to the country. However, dissonance sets in the moment one moves to solutions for this threat.

In the policy, promotion of pluralism, freedom, democracy and a culture of tolerance have been identified among other objectives to deal with threats to internal security. One would imagine that those involved in preparation of the policy must have realised that absence of these values had provided breeding ground for religious extremists and terrorists and, thus, a project to counter the latter cannot be viable without providing for the former.

Lest such policy documents lead us too far into the realm of imagination, the interior minister keeps sending reality checks our way — the latest being the directive seeking action against those expressing opinions critical of the armed forces. Before Nisar, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) had issued a similar directive warning television channels to not air any content critical of the armed forces. That the two directives come immediately after the Inter-Services Public Relations’ (ISPR) withdrawal of its earlier tweet rejecting the notification issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on DAWN Leaks inquiry cannot just be a coincidence.

Our Constitution is very clear on the matter of speech: it guarantees the right to speak because those who drafted the document knew its value to a democratic polity. The interests in the name of whom limitations are imposed on speech are in good faith i.e. they restrict malicious or hateful speech and not critical speech per se. The latter may include debates on the performance of any executive agency, including armed forces, undertaken with an intention to seek positive changes.

Democracies thrive on an argumentative citizenry and the latter can nurture only in an environment where critical dialogue is facilitated. That this rule of thumb has been recognised in our Constitution and relevant policy documents is fairly obvious. But actions of authorities concerned continue to be self-contradictory. Instead of trusting the public from whom they derive the legitimacy of their rule, the authorities have adopted a default position of suspicion and mistrust. What else explains our interior minister’s penchant for sending constant reminders about limitations on speech when he knows that such violations are not what threaten this country the most?

Perhaps, the interior minister needs to remind himself about the exact political history of the country whose security he is in charge of. Then, he may better appreciate that the primary threats to our security did not emerge because the public was given free rein to debate. To the contrary, the monsters that haunt us today have thrived in an environment where debate on crucial issues was stifled.

Daily Times