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National Interest Is Best Served By Questioning The Powerful

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Hassan Javid, an associate professor of Sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences, posted a thoughtful critique of the new rules on social media regulation approved by the government. We are posting Javid’s commentary for our readers.

The government’s proposed curbs on social media state that companies will be stopped from operating in Pakistan if they fail to remove content that is deemed to be against the country’s ‘national interest’. This would even apply to content produced outside Pakistan’s borders.

This is a blatant attempt to curtail dissent and potentially persecute those who question the state. Those who support these measures argue that freedom of speech should not include speech deemed to be ‘anti-state’. Yet, it bears asking, why should that be the case?

What does it mean to be ‘anti-state’ in this context? Who, indeed, defines what is meant by the ‘national interest’? As always, in Pakistan, the ‘national interest’ is whatever the establishment wants it to be, and ‘anti-state’ is anything critical of the establishment.

The government claims it wants to clampdown on the spread of misinformation on social media. But what of the lies that are routinely peddled by the state itself? What of the propaganda relentlessly churned out to justify the state’s actions in the greater ‘national interest’?

Being able to question the powerful and hold them to account is one of the fundamental reasons why freedom of expression is so important. It is precisely so that those in power do not get a monopoly on defining the ‘national interest’ and carte blanche to act as they please. The last thing those in power want is a citizens asking ‘why?’. They want nothing more than unquestioning obedience, and the license to pursue their agenda without any opposition or critical voices. They seek to impose their will upon the people, not with consent and debate but through coercion and manipulation.

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Those who attack the state’s critics should ask themselves when it became acceptable to suddenly trust everything the government says and does. The government’s most vocal defenders are quick to point out the hypocrisy of other states.

Why believe that Pakistan is somehow exceptional, that it does not engage in the same kinds of chicanery as other states? Why provide total obedience to ruling elites – civilian and military – who are ultimately flawed, imperfect, and self-serving like elites everywhere?

Some say the greatest impediment to Pakistan’s progress has been an inability to unite under the establishment’s banner and implement it’s vision. They are wrong. Ayub Khan, Zia, and Musharraf did not make Pakistan a paradise on earth, nor did the country’s hybrid regimes.

The problem was not the existence of dissent and opposition. Quite the opposite; the problem was, and always has been, the twisted and parochial strategic objectives of the powers-that-be. The establishment’s vision, such as it is, has always been fundamentally flawed.

This time is no different. The ‘national interest’ is not best served by uncritically accepting what the state says; it is, instead, served by ruthlessly questioning and criticizing the plans and intentions of those in power.

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