Pakistan is facing a quandary where it can do little but trust government officials. For those who take the militant threat seriously, acquiescing to government demands is the only possible reaction when the spectre of terrorist attacks raises itself. This is why we, as a nation, have accepted previously unthinkable measures — like security check posts, for example — as a routine feature of everyday life. The inconvenience is worth it if we end up being safer. But the only way to keep the government honest is by maintaining a healthy scepticism and ensuring that too many of our personal liberties are not kept hostage at the altar of civil rights. This government, unfortunately, went a step too far when it blocked all cell phone communication for about 12 hours on the night before Eid.
The justification given by Interior Minister Rehman Malik, whose ministry was ultimately responsible for the decision, was that there were nine terrorist threats against the country and since militants use remote-controlled bombs detonated by cell phones, this was an unfortunate but necessary step to take. Even if one agrees with the interior minister about the urgency of the threat and the need for drastic action, this was a bridge too far. Nearly the entire country is dependent on cell phones as a primary form of communication and Eid day witnesses the highest volume of cell phone volume in the country as Pakistanis exchange greetings and pleasantries. To block this method of communication reeks of a government that is trying to show that it can control the actions of the citizens it rules when, in any representative democracy, it should be the other way around.
The biggest worry is that if authorities can implement such draconian measures without any significant opposition, its natural temptation will be to take even more freedoms away from citizens, again using the threat of terrorist attacks as a justification. And it took barely a day for the interior ministry to show just how valid these fears are. Now, Mr Malik has announced that the blocking of cell phones was so successful in thwarting the militants that he is considering banning the very concept of prepaid cell phone connections. It should go without saying that this proposal is ludicrous. Prepaid connections are primarily bought by the poor and just because some militants may also use it is no reason to deny all Pakistanis the service.
Let us assume for now that Mr Malik and the government are proposing these measures in good faith to thwart future militant attacks. Surely, they can find ways to tackle the militancy problem without actually denying Pakistanis something that has become integral to their lives and a basic means of communication. If there is enough intelligence to indicate that cell phones may be used as a weapon, surely, information can be gathered about the identities of the perpetrators and their likely targets. Providing higher security at proposed targets and arresting those who are going to carry out attacks would be a far better counter-terrorism measure than cutting off people from their primary form of communication. The state cannot justify leaving its citizens without cell phones when they need to call for help in emergency situations.
We also need to strongly consider the possibility that the government may be acting in its own selfish interests and not that of the country’s. Recently, the National Accountability Bureau issued notices to five telecommunication companies in connection with evading Rs47 billion in taxes. The overnight ban could have been a power play by the government to show them who is in charge. If that is indeed the case, it was a monumentally colossal error by the government. Just as it would not react to wrongdoing by a utility company by shutting off the electricity supply of its users, it is wrong to make the entire country suffer for the mistakes of a few executives. This government needs to learn the value of freedom and not cast it away at the first opportunity.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2012.