Whatever final shape the proposed legislation called Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2015 may take, it will be in all probability the prevalence of security concerns upon liberty. While much has been written on how the proposed law impinges upon citizen’s right to free speech and privacy, what remains unanswered is why does security prevail upon liberty in Pakistan?
In post-colonial Pakistan, security and liberty have mainly remained at a collision course. Pakistan’s security obsession is a colonial legacy on the one hand and the result of extraordinary circumstances — either real or imagined — on the other. “Viceregal system” — a hangover from the British colonialism — centered on strengthening of the executive at the cost of legislature. In practical world, this overemphasis on the maintenance of law and order over popular representation meant, inter alia, a powerful governor general, his executive council, powerful bureaucracy and army called in extreme cases.
Security is the state’s protection of its territorial integrity and citizens from both external and internal threats. Liberty is freedom to any action which does not violate laws of the state. Thus, it is laws of a state that determine its being accommodative of dissenting opinions or not. In open societies, primarily associated with western liberal democracies, a delicate balance strikes the relationship between the two values though in times of crises the equilibrium is skewed in favour of security at the cost of liberty.
Typical authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, exhibit almost zero tolerance towards non-conformist views. In colonial times, executive was a far more dominant institute vis-à-vis the nascent representative apparatus in the North West India. Carved out of the British security state in the northwest British India, present day Pakistan was a late entry into the colonial state’s representative politics than those territories which became India. Thus, post independence, the kind of state apparatus Pakistan inherited was more authoritarian than its Indian counterpart.
The second reason behind the triumph of security obsession over liberty is the contentious existence of extraordinary circumstances. In order to understand this, it is necessary to make a sense of the relationship between the two. The relationship between security and liberty is contextual; Pakistan is no exception. There is hardly any liberty if there is no security. That is the reason people avoid visiting troubled spots how enjoyable these may be, however.
But, at times of crises, there is an inverse relationship between security and liberty. Even the world’s otherwise mature democracies cannot escape the fallout in the form of dwindling of freedom of thoughts and actions from swelling of security realm. It should not come as a surprise then that post 9/11, the US patriot Act — encroaching upon public liberties — evoked hue and cry from American human rights groups.
An almost universal principle is that crisis enhances the role of executive at the expense of legislature. After 9/11, the overbearing role of American president in the US political system and the British prime minister’s bypassing of Parliament and the emergence of “inner cabinet” in the UK are all testament to the fact that during crisis, even representative institutes in mature democracies are at the receiving end. It is here that, sometimes, liberal democracies act very illiberally. Yet, even during crises, there is the essential difference between the trajectory of politics in Pakistan and western democracies. In the country, the domineering decision-making role of non-elective offices during crises has been a perennial concern, more so since the era of Afghan jihad.
Islamabad’s “enduring rivalry” with New Delhi since 1947 accompanied by the stark absence of any national elections during the first two decades after independence lost huge ground to civil and military bureaucracies to the detriment of representative institutions and by extension public liberty. More recently, whether the Peshawar school incident fell under the rubric of extraordinary circumstances or not is a moot question. The fact that it served as one — “Pakistan’s 9/11” as some dubbed the terrorist episode — is beyond any doubt.
The result was the prime minister’s 20-point National Action Plan. It included among others preventing the glorification of terrorism through print and electronic media and denying internet and social media for the promotion of terrorism. The corollary was the proposed piece of legislation called Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2015, an embodiment of the clash between security and liberty and the winning out of the former over the latter.
The reason that, sometimes, security and liberty come into conflict is because of the fact that anti-society forces accrue undue benefits from freedom of action envisaged by democracy. The more recent cause for censoring the web under the proposed law is the alleged belief that uncensored internet is a security threat to state’s security. To a certain extent that is definitely the case.
Internet provides an easy access to militants/hate mongers to reconnect, spread their message and recruit. Nevertheless, in our case, the problem with censoring the web for security reasons — appreciating in theory though — is problematic on two grounds. One, it is beyond the capacity of Pakistani government to afford as extensive eavesdropping enterprise as the one employed by the American National Security Agency. Second, in our case, the target of censorship is as much silencing the dissenting voices as it is ensuring the safety of citizens. One may wonder how blocking the YouTube for the last two years has helped ensuring our security when it does more harm to freedom of expression and education of the students and the public at large. What to do?
Both security and liberty are public good, hence desirable. They should be concurrent with each other. Whenever they become competing notions, the need is to strike a judicious balance between the two. For sure, doing so requires getting policy inputs from public, think tanks, media and state institutions to evolve some sort of majority consensus.
As of Pakistan’s journey away from executive authoritarianism and security state and towards genuine democracy is concerned, Islamabad’s peace with its motley assortment of ethnic and religious groups at home and mending fences with India are prerequisites to decisively break with the past.