Dawn Editorials 11th May 2023

Digital backslide

A COUNTRYWIDE mobile internet and social media shutdown, ostensibly to quell unrest in the wake of PTI protests following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan, is par for the course when it comes to Pakistan’s abysmal state of internet governance.

As outlined in the newly released Pakistan Internet Landscape Report 2022 published by advocacy group Bytes For All, “There is little to celebrate when it comes to Pakistan’s digital front, and the future is at best uncertain, and at worst, set to devolve without comprehensive, sweeping changes in awareness, understanding and action”. The report provides an overview of where the country stands on key information and communication technologies fronts, and it is a largely grim picture.

In terms of internet access and speeds, Pakistan trails far behind the world, with 15pc of the population lacking even basic access, while the rest suffer through slow speeds, unreliable connectivity and internet blackouts as a result of loadshedding, climate crises, or even state-sanctioned blocks — one of the worst examples of which occurred on Tuesday.

The report also noted that cybercrimes have risen greatly over the years, touching over 100,000 complaints last year. Cases of blasphemy accusations stemming from the online space, and the use of the digital sphere to stir up hatred has reached a boiling point, with the report noting that the state’s only response has largely been to incarcerate suspects.

Similarly, the report captures how disinformation online has run rampant, with political parties and other institutions leading the way. This was noted to be coupled with massive breaches of privacy and data security across 2022 in the form of audio leaks from the highest offices and those in power, which begs the questions, who in Pakistan is truly safe online?

The details captured in the report offer a bleak picture, and it is clear that state institutions are primarily culpable for where the country stands on the digital front.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2023

Shady deal

THE elephant in the room cannot, and should not, be ignored. At the heart of the multibillion-rupee Al-Qadir Trust corruption case in which Imran Khan was arrested on Tuesday is property tycoon Malik Riaz and his £190m settlement with the UK’s National Crime Agency after a ‘dirty money’ probe into his assets in that country. The NCA investigates money laundering and finances derived from criminal activity in the UK and abroad; in case of the latter, it returns the stolen money to the affected countries. But in this instance, the state of Pakistan itself chose not to be the beneficiary. Instead, the PTI government at the time, despite its self-righteous claims about holding the corrupt to account and bringing back ill-gotten gains from abroad, allowed the individual from whom the money had been forfeited to benefit from its return. When £140m of the forfeited amount was repatriated to Pakistan, it was put towards Mr Riaz’s pending land settlement dues totalling Rs460bn in the country. The liability was imposed by the Supreme Court after his real estate firm Bahria Town was held to have illegally acquired thousands of acres of public land in Karachi. The court had spelled out a specific schedule for this historic amount — nearly $3bn at the time — to be paid in instalments into a Supreme Court account created for the purpose. But whether these instalments are being paid accordingly is shrouded in a level of secrecy more suited to highly classified information concerning national security than a matter about which the public has a right to know. Perhaps the Supreme Court itself can throw some light on the matter.

Meanwhile, the coalition government is assiduously focusing on one part of the story alone: that which avoids any mention or involvement of Mr Riaz, whose links among the power elite are well known. This aspect of the saga pertains to the alleged deal whereby “a property tycoon” — referred to as such even in NAB’s press release — gifted the former premier and his wife billions of rupees and hundreds of kanals of land for their Al-Qadir Trust in return for Mr Khan smoothing the way for him to benefit from the forfeited millions. The first question to be asked here, and one that should have been asked long ago, is why such a travesty of justice happened at all.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2023

What next?

NOW that the state has Imran Khan in custody, does it have a plan for what comes next? The PTI’s vast support base — a majority of the citizenry, if recent polls are to be believed — is seething with rage. How do the powers that be plan to mollify this agitated lot?

The PTI leadership may have distanced itself from the violence following Mr Khan’s arrest, but it ought to have condemned the same in clear words to discourage more people from taking the law in their hands. Instead, Wednesday saw a fresh round of violence in major cities, with dozens of needless injuries and a mounting death toll.

Meanwhile, around 1,000 protesters had been picked by Wednesday afternoon in Punjab alone. Many major cities of the country were being policed under Section 144, which curtails fundamental rights.

Key communication services remained offline as the state scrambled to keep protesters from organising on a larger scale, and the army had been requisitioned in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Is this to be our new normal?

In the long list of follies committed under the present regime, the manner in which Mr Khan’s arrest was effected stands out. The former prime minister was seized by a paramilitary force that does not answer to civilian authorities, for an alleged crime for which even government ministers dare not name the other party.

Mr Khan had indeed been increasingly confrontational against the present dispensation, but was arresting him the only way to ensure peace? Indeed, the arrest only seems to have reinforced the perception that yet another civilian government has joined hands with unelected powers to ‘take out’ a popular political leader simply because they threaten their individual interests.

It is deeply regrettable that the PDM parties, despite the many sufferings of their own leaders, are aiding the crackdown. There is little that is democratic about the manner in which they have chosen to act, and they may one day pay a heavy price for their complicity today.

Mr Khan must be thoroughly investigated over all allegations of corruption and wrongdoing against him. The case in which he was arrested, for instance, involves a dubious, multibillion-rupee deal, and the public deserves answers.

However, the ruling parties must realise that they cannot claim any moral superiority over him if they must continue to insist on treating him in the same manner that they themselves were hounded in the past.

The PDM would do well to remember that it had taken over government to put an end to a long-running cycle of political persecution. It must not perpetuate it for another generation. The ugliness has to stop. The country has suffered greatly in this clash of egos. The government must put an end to it.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2023

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