When Social Networks Came Together to Warn Pakistan

Source: New York Times/Aamir Qureshi/Agence France Presse/Getty

How many times in history has all the social networks come together, for a change, against a country? Well, Pakistan, a supposed democracy, made that happen this week. Pakistan’s PTI-led government under Prime Minister Imran Khan passed the ridiculously titled Pakistan’s Citizens Protection Rules (Against Online Harm) without putting it up for either debate or voting in the House.

According to this New York Times report, the new rules will require social media networks to take down any content created by a user if it happens to irk the Pakistani government and the government could ask for the removal of content within 24 hours and even within a few hours in “emergencies” that will be declared by the Minister of IT. The rules are reported to have even more ridiculous conditions such as these organizations deputing their country representatives in Pakistan and to establish data centers for the country locally.

It should be shocking that a government would receive a warning such as this but with this government in power, it probably should not surprise anyone. The government’s rules were responded to by the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association that features facebook, Google, and twitter among others as its members. Now I am not sure whether a letter from this body amounts to this sort of headline or not, but it certainly is a damning sign for the people of a developing nation who are already struggling to thrive economically. Especially coming from the incumbent government that claims to be the party of the youth and has pledged developments on the digital front. Instead, it only offered the worst media censorship in living memory and curbs on journalism.

It is one of the many spectacles created by the government led by Imran Khan that has made Pakistan a laughing stock for the world. But far worse than just bad press, it concerns the freedom, economy, and the lives of the people of Pakistan. Just imagine if these services indeed pulled from Pakistan if the government does not roll back the new rules, how devastating it would be for a growing digital economy with millions of freelancers and dozens of thriving e-commerce startups. All just to satisfy the fragile egos of men in the military and civil bureaucratic establishment. Recently, the Modi administration cracked down on citizens for using VPN in Kashmir, an abomination in a democracy. Is that next for Pakistan since the FIA has nothing better to do but to monitor online content? The only fitting response to such a country must be international trade and financial sanctions.

Pakistan must correct its course because it ends up completely destroying itself. And the national security threat, in this case, is not the dissenting blogger, but the national security state itself.

 

The Zindagi Tamasha Affair: The Spectacle of Blackmail by Blasphemy Censorship

Source: Khoosat Films

Filmmaker and free speech hero Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who is arguably the most brilliant filmmaking mind in Pakistan, has just announced the release of his film “Zindagi Tamasha.” The film, perhaps controversially, portrays a naatkhwaan or a hymn reciter, played by Arif Ali, with a compromised reputation due to a sexually explicit leaked video as evident from the trailer. Nobody has watched the film yet, with its clearly fascinating story and stunning imagery and poster graphic design, such as the religious protagonist wearing a dupatta, a feminine article of clothing, but it has already hit a roadblock.

It was clear from the very beginning that the film was testing the waters of acceptance and free speech in Pakistan. The film has been passed by the Censor Board but not without event. According to Sarmad in one of the “meet and greet events” of the film, only curse words are bleeped while no line has been cut. However, his initial trailer had to be taken down and cut from the new trailer version. The earlier trailer had an ingenious shot of children on the swings chanting “Labaik Ya Rasoolullah,” revered by the Barelvi/TLP.

The recently emerged but notoriously nasty Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, a Barelvi anti-blasphemy and group headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has announced countrywide protests against the film on January 22 as it allegedly “mocks Islamic values.” The film trailer has certain lines that allude to religious clerics committing sodomy and abusing young boys, while at another place, it shows perhaps a Barelvi cleric threatening the protagonist with a blasphemy threat.

Source: Khoosat Films

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat is a brave filmmaker who has made bold films such as “Manto” about the controversial Urdu author. However, this episode is apparently even too much for him. Sarmad has been receiving threatening calls and messages, asking him to cancel the release of the film and warning about dire results. Sarmad, being the sensitive and peaceful artist that he is, is now considering canceling the release of the film. He has been forced to cancel the promotion events of the film in Karachi.

 

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In an open letter heavy with disappointment, Sarmad explained how the film was much more than a film for him, on which he had dedicated two years of his life and perhaps his entire career spending. The film that has won Kim Ji-Seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival, is surely not one that can be dismissed as a mediocre effort. However, it appears that theocratic thuggery is more important in this society than an artist’s statement.

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It is indeed a new low for the state of free speech in the country that a religious fundamentalist group is now hijacking the release of a motion picture. It is indeed a direct consequence of the deep state sponsoring and enabling religious fundamentalism for years, despite the recent crackdown against the TLP.

Source: Sadia Nazir

However, the genie of Islamic fundamentalism is out of the lamp, and it probably can only be undone with drastic and authoritarian measures, which will surely seem unfair and counter to religious freedom to most. However,

Every Pakistani who claims to uphold the arts and should be ashamed of it.

As of today, the censor film board has invited the members of the TLP and the government to the screening of the film for review again and the release of the film has been postponed. Let us just hope that the audiences in Pakistan get to watch at least a part of this milestone film made specifically for them.

The fate of Zindagi Tamasha hangs in the balance. Nobody is sure about the release, not even the filmmakers. But if you can be sure of one fact, it’s that Pakistani cinema audiences will be missing a great treat under heavy censorship which has no reason to be in this day and age.

With attitudes such as this, it makes you wonder if Pakistan deserves a “revival of cinema” at all. All we deserve and need are military produced shitfests and Mullah-approved scripts.

Tightening the Authoritarian Noose Around the People’s Neck

Source: flare.pk

Pakistan is not a country we should feel proud of anymore. It has increasingly become an entity that is acting hostile to the people it is supposed to stand for. This is clear and evident by the recent curbs on political freedom and freedom of speech in the current year reminiscent of the years of the military dictatorship in the country. However, the comment of the current Chairman PTA, who happens to be a military officer (surprise, surprise) is unprecedented.

The PTA Chairman Maj. Gen. (R) Amir Azeem Bajwa, whose name sounds eerily related to the current Army Chief, said that social media in Pakistan should be blocked in the manner of China and the UAE. He recommended that Pakistan should develop its own social media channels to allow for state censorship and censor inappropriate content. Appointed in December 2018, under the able leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, General Bajwa mainly focused on “blasphemous content” to make his case of taking away the right of citizens to use social media to express their voices. If anyone had doubts about democracy being under threat in Pakistan, this statement should remove it.

The Chairman PTA was testifying to the Senate panel examining purported grievances where he remarked that “either the technical abilities of the organization be enhanced or the allow them to block social media websites to stop the circulation of blasphemous material.”  Even though nobody is ever going to explain what a retired general is doing serving this position and one which he is most likely not qualified for, his comments will largely go unaccounted for other than some fringe criticism on the social media of all the places. Nobody is going to mention it on the mainstream media and any criticism on the national news is improbable.

Surely, for the PTA chairman, blocking more than 850,000 porn and news websites are not enough. It is pretty clear that for these state authoritarians, it is not nearly enough. They want to go after the internet itself and if not the internet connectivity to maintain a facade of modernity, they will neuter it to an unusable state-regulated version.

With the launch of CPEC development projects and the rolling out of the optic fiber link from Khunjerab to Gwadar, one of the biggest fears is the Chinese internet spilling over into Pakistan. While thankfully the CPEC projects in Pakistan have appeared to slow down, it has nevertheless inspired the civil and military bureaucratic despots at the reins of administration in this country.

Unfortunately, the narratives these anti-democratic forces have nurtured for the past seventy years have duped well-meaning conservative citizens into believing that their civil rights and political freedoms are bad for them and for the country. Even in the name of blasphemy and national security, there is no shortage of urban nationalist conservatives in the country who would gladly sacrifice the internet as a public enemy.

The greatest tragedy of all is the fascist administration of PTI, a party that was pretty much built by and through the power of social media, other than a little help of our military establishment of late. More than the duplicitous and malicious leadership of the PTI, the people who would be the greatest losers are the urban educated voters of the party who look down upon the traditional and less privileged voters all across Pakistan. The government they voted in might be infringing on their rights but they have a choice to speak up. Pretty soon this little freedom we have will be gone.

Pakistan still has a lot to lose, which it continues to lose every day.

The New Censorship Regime in Pakistan

Source: Pakistan Today

After ten years of relative democracy in the country after General Pervez Musharraf’s resignation from 2008 to the last election in 2018, the country enjoyed an oasis of the explosion of free expression. Again that free expression is an expression to be used in relevant terms. Either way, Pakistan has not seen such flourishing of journalism in its history until the new censorship regime was introduced by the military and bureaucratic establishment.

With the assumption of office of the current military establishment and their subsequent “selection” of the PTI administration under Imran Khan, the censorship of the media has never been escalated to such a degree. Other than the organized harassment campaigns against journalists, the twitter handles of three journalists were forcibly deactivated temporarily by the state agents. Sadly, there is ample data on the web for anybody who wants to write a paper on it.

Journalist Hamid Mir recently held a press conference in which he sounded like a political activist campaigning for rights instead of a reporter. Well, things have gone this bad for journalists in the country and probably more than ever before.

 

Only a few days back, the ruling political party removed all doubts whatsoever as far as its support of the crackdown on journalists is concerned. Many journalists can barely believe that a party that owes so much of its current support to the media.

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Pakistani state agenda’s true representative political party PTI went out of its way to launch a disgusting campaign against press freedom. What they pretty much mean is that if a journalist is not following state propaganda, they are committing treason. Some of the tweets even directly implied that as reported by Dawn.

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The powerful DG ISPR also routinely lectures journalists about what they should report on.

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The ruling party PTI, which rose to power as a result of constant media coverage when it was in the opposition, has routinely blocked coverage to the opposition. Particularly Maryam Nawaz Sharif, a new leader on the rise, protesting with the aim to free her father former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified and jailed following two controversial judgments. Media outlets such as Geo Network have been repeatedly blocked in local cable following the coverage of her rallies. Earlier interviews of President Asif Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif were blocked from the media but the latter was not even mentioned in the mainstream electronic media, which the military and bureaucratic establishment, along with the PTI considers the actual source of public information.

To many journalists, the kind of censorship practiced under the PTI regime even surpasses the standards set by the draconian Zia regime. However, the difference is that this 21st-century censorship continues despite the presence of social media on the parallel. Considering how dissent is considered “treason” by the patriotic lot in Pakistan, wonder when we will see a blanket ban on social media. We know our government has tried that before in the previous administration. The day people finally decide to come out on the streets against this draconian government, that day is not far off either.

Pakistan can become Sudan any day.

Minorities Gasp for Air in a More Undemocratic Pakistan

Source: The Nation

Seventy years since Muhammad Ali Jinnah made his famous August 11 speech about the freedom of religious minorities, Pakistan has become a much darker place than what its founders intended to be. His understanding of the logical consequence of founding Pakistan is astounding to anyone with even a remote understanding of the reasons for a separate state for the Muslim community. However, his words remain to be a beacon of inspiration for those who intend to make the social contract in Pakistan fair and humane, even though in reality it is nothing more than a speech.

The founder of the nation must have been shocked out of his senses seeing the covert military dictatorship that goes on behind democracy. The way the deep state has been censoring and manipulating the electronic media has been so astounding that even mainstream journalists could not resist raising their voices on alternative media sources. While the military and bureaucratic regime of the country has not yet considered social media such a threat, but as we have witnessed a couple of instances before, it is not beyond the Pakistani deep state to deprive its citizens of this modern but basic source of self-expression.

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It is an even greater disgrace, and perhaps a consequence of the authoritarian regime, that the current election was held as a virtual referendum on the discriminatory and undemocratic Second Amendment. The military and the theocratic mullah establishment clearly joined hands against one political party Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), which had taken a relatively secular turn of late. Some Sunni clerics even went so far as to declare voting for the party haraam or forbidden according to Sharia. The two million votes and two Sindh assembly seats for the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan are a testament to the fact.

This is the consequence of establishing a constitution that requires Pakistan to be an Islamic Republic. It is a travesty that in such a country people would even claim that the religious minority citizens have equal rights. And then to maintain that Islam offers the best alternative to secularism. It is because of these faux intellectuals and theocratic bigots that Pakistan is in such a dismal state of civil rights and individual freedom. Relatively more liberal and progressive parties such as the PPP continue to offer representatives from religious minority groups opportunities on general seats but all of this remains meaningless unless constitutional reforms are brought into place. Something that remains impossible due to more nationalist and populist elements coming to power.

People continue to be killed in the name of blasphemy. Forget the minority religions, even members of the majority religion are not safe either. Recently, a Sindhi artist Qutb Rind was pushed from a building in Lahore because of an alleged blasphemy. To my mind, artists such as Rind are indeed minorities in an obscurantist nation blinded by bigotry and religious hate.

I can only be ashamed of being a citizen of such a country where minority communities are treated with such brutality and hang my hand low in shame this independence day.

Hameed Haroon’s Case Against Media Censorship in Pakistan

Source: BBC

The pro-military nationalist and PTI trolls, which are effectively the same team now, have been trumpeting how comprehensively Hameed Haroon was ripped apart for his anti-establishment viewpoint, oblivious of the fact that hard line of questioning is the format of the show. Even some journalists were disappointed by his performance. But I cannot imagine why. There really was nothing about the interview that was not properly handled by him. I have shared the video in this post and clearly, all of them and I are watching completely different shows.

There are a few things to say about the content of the show and the way Hameed Haroon covered it. Other than the disingenuous questioning representing the supposed viewpoint of the nationalistic elements that Stephen Sackur had to come up with to keep up with the format of the show, Haroon used self-restraint for the most part. What the critics of his performance on the show are forgetting is that he could have been far more direct and blunt in his criticism of the military than he was. This was because he was obviously mindful of the fact that he was representing Pakistan on an international media forum.

But it is his duty to the people and journalism in Pakistan to present the case for preserving democracy and freedom of the press in the country. And when his media group is one of the primary victims, he is indeed rightful to make the case against the military imposed censorship. Furthermore, I am very glad he brought up that ridiculous chart that the DG ISPR had put up in his press conference as if to send a message that the bloggers were a criminal cartel or a terrorist group. What about his army of paid trolls? As for the question of Dawn favoring Nawaz Sharif, which any regular reader of the center-left leaning paper knows is simply not true, comes out only of op-ed pieces criticizing the unfair targeting of this political figure by the state establishment, not their reporting.

There is no doubt that Hameed Haroon could have been more articulate than he actually was, Obviously, in my humble opinion, while he is the perfect man to speak on the subject, on the question of evidence for military meddling in the media, he failed to bring up the dozens of journalists killed over a period of five odd years in Pakistan, as well as dozens, if not hundreds more. I am sure the journalists expressing their disappointment must be upset at things of that nature. Everything documented a bit too well by the international media. That is already incriminating evidence against the military intelligence thugs hard at work at curbing dissenting journalism in the name of national security. That is enough evidence you need.

But more than that, more than presenting hard evidence which sounds so cold, it is a matter of experience. It is about the shit we are dealing with every single day. The abduction of Gul Bukhari is not a myth. The harassment of Taha Siddiqui is not a concoction. Nobody made up the story of Umer Cheema picked up by the agencies, tortured, and had his head and eyebrows shaved. Hamid Mir actually got shot by a bullet and Saleem Shahzad paid for his doing his job with his life. A simple Google search will offer you all the evidence you are looking for.

Probably journalists in Pakistan are getting more than they bargained for. They should probably quit their jobs and start selling Pakistani flags and prayer mats to make a living to appease the nationalists at home.

The Calls for Revolution in Lahore and State Censorship

Source: Dawn

We are living in fascinating times.

Never before a civil rights movement that is about something as fundamental as the demands for the recognition of the Pashtuns of the tribal areas has emerged on this scale. To add insult to the injury of the authoritarian state which does not recognize the legitimacy of the movement, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement decided to hold their congregation in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, the majority ethnic province the population of which traditionally makes up most of the bureaucratic establishment that runs the Pakistani state.

While Pakistan has a long way to go in terms of democracy, few would have thought that the kind of draconian measures that were imposed during Zia’s term would still be around. Especially when another dictator Pervez Musharraf, who had started imagining himself an elected leader after his sham referendum. But after that period of euphoric media freedom the likes of which the people of Pakistan had never seen before, who would have thought that you would see absolute control of speech on TV and censored, deleted newspaper articles.

After Express Tribune censoring the articles from New York Times about blasphemy years ago and more recently Mohammad Hanif’s article criticizing the military establishment for its covert support to the Islamist militants, a new phenomenon is underway. Published newspaper articles going missing.

Renowned journalists, analysts, and columnists are being prevented from writing about the Pashtun

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One such article by Khan Zaman Kakar was deleted by The News, which was later shared on his profile by Ahmed Waqas Goraya. Nobody wants to hear anyone calling the PTM a non-violent movement. Especially when the state is so responsive and cooperative to Mullahs threatening violence and rioting to fulfill their demands.

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Apart from an organized defamation movement against the movement of Manzoor Pashteen, accusing it of collusion with enemy countries, the mainstream media is deliberately blocking all mention and all news.

Very few in Pakistan know that the City District Government of Lahore, working under the domain of Government of Punjab, released sewage water in the ground near Lakshmi Chowk in Lahore where the congregation had to take place. The movement workers had to get rid of the flooding on their own to make the event possible.

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If this were not enough, the state resorted to arresting the leadership of the political movement ahead of the rally and after it. You could argue that it is a blatant violation of the Constitution but we can only thank our stars that the government did not shut twitter and facebook down. The crackdown on the TLYRA Protest in Islamabad on November 26 last time has shown us that the government can even go to that limit when twitter and facebook saw a temporary blackout. Sadly, our Supreme Court and judicial activist Chief Justice would remain silent on these constitutional violations.

But who will know about these constitutional violations when no one is going to learn about them? And when the press will be prevented from covering such news?

Yes, press censorship is back in full flow and the freedom of press is dead.