Finally Coming After Your Social Media

Source: Dawn

Well, recruiting an army of trolls just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough because it didn’t work. It wasn’t enough because dissident journalists and bloggers such as Gul Bukhari and Ahmed Waqas Goraya were simply not shutting up.

After a humiliating exit of DG ISPR General Asif Ghafoor from his position, and rightly so because perhaps such erratic tweeting didn’t suit a DG ISPR, it seemed for a while that the troll army had retreated for a moment. This occurred after hundreds of fake accounts run by nationalist trolls were deleted by twitter. However, the new DG ISPR Babar Iftikhar does not sound like much of a fan of a free media either, as has been the case with the Bajwa-Imran regime.

Ever since the Bajwa-Imran regime has established itself in its full glory since the elections in July 2019, they have been hell-bent to curb media freedom. There has been a crackdown on bloggers and political dissidents and several

While people were wondering if it was about time that the government thought about pulling the cord on the social media, the government finally delivered a kind of low that has no parallel in history. The draconian Cybercrime Act under the PML-N had set the stage for this government overreach, which ironically resulted in the detention of the members of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s own social media team following the Dawn Leaks controversy. On top of that, the PTI government has proposed the Citizens Protection Against Online Harm Rules 2020, which the cabinet has already passed and which will not be up for voting in the parliament. Unfortunately, no opposition party is expected to deliver a reasonable response to this, let alone oppose this measure heavily criticized by many commentators. Obviously, these directives are coming from the military establishment.

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Not just that, the federal authorities in Pakistan went a step ahead by issuing journalist Gul Bukhari a notice on terrorism charges. They accused her of using incendiary language against the security institutions in Pakistan.

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It is probably the biggest joke considering how Ehsanullah Ehsan, the controversial spokesperson of the Taliban has been kept as almost a state guest by Pakistan authorities. What was worse Ehsansullah Ehsan had claimed to escape the custody of the military and was later found to be in Turkey. The Interior Minister Ijaz Shah later acknowledged that he is missing as well, sparking fury among APS parents.

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Supposedly liberal ministers in the PTI cabinet such as Fawad Chaudhary made an excuse for the policy, citing taxation on social networks. Diverting attention by insisting that the proposed draconian measures by the government are for economic reasons cannot fool either the skeptical dissenters and the suspecting foreign commentators who are well aware of the nefarious intentions of the state. It also does not require an expert to conclude that these directives are coming not from the PTI but a higher and deeper state authority. What is disappointing though is the silence of PTI, a party that rose to power thanks to the social media, and the shamelessness with which it is defending the unprecedented curbs on the media and freedom of speech.

If Pakistan indeed suspends social media citing a lack of control over content critical to it, then it must face repercussions from the international community. The greatest responsibility will be on the United States to see beyond its strategic relationship with the country and impose sanctions on the country. The European Union and Great Britain must also take similar action to press Pakistan over possibly denying its citizens the fundamental access to the internet. There could not have been a worse state of media and citizen freedom in Pakistan.

Giving Democracy the Boot

Source: Dawn

Faisal Vawda, the PTI Minister of Water Resources, and known for his signature outrageous antics, made a new history along with provocative ARY News anchor Kashif Abbasi. In a talk show, which also featured opposition leaders Senator Javed Abbasi of the PML-N and Qamar Zaman Kaira of the PPP on the panel.

In the middle of the talk show, Faisal Vawda took out a military boot, symbolic of the Pakistani military, and put it on the panel desk. Both the opposition leaders walked out in protest. This was meant to insult the reversal of PML-N on their anti-military stance as well as the corruption of their leaders, who have supposedly made another deal with the military establishment to flee the country. All this while, the PTI ministers have been criticizing the PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif for fleeing the country under the false pretense of medical reasons.

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As insulting, idiotic, and completely reckless Vawda’s “boot ko izzat do” action is, being our last Pakistani Idiot of the Year, his comments in the show remind the opposition of a harsh reality. The PML-N leadership has forsaken its anti-establishment workers and left them hanging while conveniently abandoning their criticism of the military leadership in exchange for Nawaz Sharif’s departure to London for medical treatment. It was on social media, that their anti-establishment supporters had started the criticism of “boot ko izzat do” (Give respect to the boot (military establishment)) as a spinoff of “vote ko izzat do” (Give respect to the vote) which was the slogan of PML-N in the 2018 elections. It is not as if the phrase was coined by Vawda.

Kashif Abbasi, the ARY News anchor, the look on whose face was worth watching, probably did the right thing to let Vawda make his point from a broadcaster’s viewpoint. It certainly created broadcast history no matter how terrible it was for political discourse in the country. However, PEMRA had slapped Abbasi with a 60-day ban, which will be reviewed. On the other side, Imran Khan, the Prime Minister, has expressed his displeasure over Vawda’s behavior in the talk show and imposed a ban on him on appearing on talk shows.

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The Vawda boot episode only goes to show the dismal state of democracy and civilian supremacy in Pakistan in which the deep state and its representatives have dropped all pretense about their interference in politics. It is symptomatic of this disregard of the constitutional roles of institutions which has enabled a loudmouth such as Vawda to indulge in this shameless behavior. However, you could argue that there was a lot of truth in Vawda’s rant.

Which makes you wonder if Vawda is the only political leader brave enough to even mention the involvement of the “boot” in politics on mainstream media so openly.

Perhaps he is a free-speech hero and not an idiot after all.

Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2019: Gulalai Ismail

Source: Dawn

In a country where freedom of expression is considered an abomination and where democracy is seen with disdain, the bar to become a free speech hero is not very high. But a person who took dissent and to a new level, it is Gulalai Ismail. The winner of the Chirac Foundation Prize in France for her feminist organization Aware Girls in Pakistan, Gulalai upheld the tradition of Pakistani women being global ambassadors of everything positive the country had to offer.

Gulalai became a victim of harassment by state agencies after she had openly expressed her support for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. She was noted for speaking out against Pakistani military’s abuses against Pashtun women. Her fiery speech following the rape and murder of Farishteh, an Afghan refugee minor girl whose father was denied a police report because of their refugee status. She was arrested in February 2019 following that and was shortly released. However, her life remained under threat and her family was constantly harassed about her whereabouts after she withdrew from public life.

In September 2019, The New York Times reported in an explosive story that Gulalai had arrived in the United States and had applied for political asylum. This brought some relief to Gulalai but it was short-lived. While she was safe in the United States, her family was being harassed back home in Pakistan. She continues to speak out for her family’s rights, the rights of the Pashtun people, and especially women.

Gulalai’s father, Prof. Muhammad Ismail, is probably where she draws her fiery spirit from. Prof. Ismail, recently detained by the Pakistani authorities, is as fierce in his dissent as Gulalai and remains defiant of the state to this day. After a torturous detention, he was recently issued bail. His crime, being Gulalai’s father and a dissenter to the State of Pakistan.

An honorable mention is due to Ammar Ali Jan, the progressive political activist and academic from FC College Lahore, who has been abducted and charged with treason only for speaking out about the rights of the people and students. A columnist for The News, Ammar had not even joined twitter of late. However, his influence as a social activist. He was one of the organizers of the Students Solidarity March, along with the Progressive Students Federation, and was charged with treason among others after a successful display of non-violent force by the students on November 29. Today, the Students Solidarity March has prompted the lifting of the ban on the Students Union in Sindh Province and a similar resolution has been presented in the Punjab Assembly.

I feel proud to mention the name of Lala Iqbal Khan, the father of a great free speech hero and martyr Mishaal Khan in this post. Disgustingly, the case registered against the organizers of the Students Solidarity March also callously booked Lala Iqbal. Despite this treatment by the state, he stood on solid ground as far as his convictions were concerned.

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Last year saw the beginning of the #metoo movement in Pakistan. Despite odds, otherwise-seemingly- privileged artists such as Meesha Shafi came out against Ali Zafar. However, considering Pakistan’s social taboos, Jami jolted the conscience of Pakistani society with the revelation of being raped by Dawn CEO Hameed Haroon, a journalist who many would like to see as a free-speech hero in his own right considering the harassment of the Dawn Group. Jami’s struggle is going to be long and potentially fruitless. I don’t know if I am educated enough to even comment on it, other than showing unconditional support and solidarity to him.

An important and unlikely dissenter who should be mentioned among free speech heroes is Mufti Kifayatullah, and it would be dishonest to ignore him simply because he is a theocrat. Mufti Kifayatullah defied the convention that theocratic politicians are pro-establishment in the country and proved to be a breath of fresh air for a change for openly speaking out against the military.

Special mentions, of course, go to journalist Gul Bukhari, journalist Taha Siddiqui, and blogger Ahmed Waqas Goraya, all three of whom have been assaulted extrajudicially by the Pakistani authorities, who have been relentless in their criticism of the military establishment and state authoritarianism in Pakistan. They have particularly been a nuisance in getting obnoxious responses from the current DG ISPR. Goraya recently claimed to be responsible for the shut down of thousands of twitter accounts of trolls which he alleges to be hired by the information wing of the Pakistani military.

However, more than them, many of the prominent journalists still in the country, who cannot appear on TV anymore are probably greater free speech heroes, including Talat Hussain, Matiullah Jan, and Najam Sethi. Hamid Mir, Amber Rahim Shamsi, and Asma Shirazi are also fighting the good fight while still on the air.

Read about the Pakistani free speech hero for 2018 here.

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.

Don’t You Dare Dissent

Source: The Daily Times

What is going on? The generation on the eastern bank of the Indus who was born after Zia’s period has never seen anything like this in their entire lifetime. And ironically, this is the generation that is standing up the most in dissent. Are they insane?

Their world view has been shaped by the ideals of Western democracy and is inspired by the recently concentrated focus on social justice. How can the activism triggered by these values be reconciled by the fact that they have been brought up in a faux democracy that has a violently grim history?

Well, nothing has changed as far as the Pakistani state is concerned. Except for they are not afraid anymore. Or so it seems to us, clueless commentators.

The revolution of dissent inspired by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement has even taken overnight arrests to the heart of Punjab. Of course, it has happened before the last time the PTM decided to hold a rally in the provincial capital of Punjab following the killing of activist Arman Luni. This time around, Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, a Cambridge educated progressive professor of Punjab University from Lahore, was apprehended at the strike of dawn from his residence.

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Ammar Ali Jan was later released and he articulated his ordeal in a column demanding for a new social contract.

Dr. Ammar Ali Jan was not the only facing the wrath of the authorities. This time the arrest was supposed to make more legal sense when Rizwan Razi was picked up from his home, in classic detention style by the FIA wing under the Cyber Crime Law passed under the last PML-N administration. While I and many prominent bloggers and journalists had a feeling what this, for which the previous administration, as well as the PPP controlled Senate needs to take full responsibility (although, of course, the terms were dictated from the bureaucratic state) but it’s sad how the assault on free speech has been meticulously legislated in Pakistan.

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So what’s next is the question. Banning twitter and facebook in Pakistan? We know these websites have been temporarily suspended from user access in Pakistan before. We also know that our state institutions have an army of trolls to defend the ideology of the state as well. But something on the lines may be days away because of the latest threat by the Ministry of Information, warning of strict action.

Unfortunately, we have a similar history of repression of political free speech throughout the history of Pakistan. Only recently the memo case against the former ambassador in exile, Hussain Haqqani, was dropped from the courts. That case was simply going nowhere and the court ended the hearings because the petitioners themselves were not interested to show up.

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The court simply concluded that the government should proceed against the Ambassador if it wishes to do so. Haqqani is known for his sharp anti-establishment political views about Pakistan and currently heads the Hudson Institute in Washington DC. Despite the hostilities at home, he remains committed to a free and democratic Pakistani society.

But that is not possible without civilian supremacy and a transparently functioning democracy in Pakistan. I know that the buzz is all about the India-Pakistan border conflict but these things also marked a very dark February in 2019.

Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2018: Manzoor Pashteen

Source: Rahat Dar/EPA/The Guardian

In a year that has been widely recognized as one of the darkest, if not the worst ever, in terms of free speech in Pakistan, only someone who could take on the state could be the most important free speech hero.

As Pakistan becomes more and more of a police station since the Taliban insurgency and the War on Terror, the state is doubling down on authoritarian security measures. However, in the name of national security, you will often find the voice of political dissidents suppressed.  Such has been the case with Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is a protest political movement against the active racial profiling against the Pashtuns in Pakistan as well as the missing persons abducted in the aftermath of the Waziristan operations carried out by the Pakistan military. Perhaps this movement would not have gathered such spontaneous support across Pakistan had the discrimination against Pashtuns not reached such pan-national scale. The boiling point came with the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, which triggered nationwide outrage from the Pashtun community, except for the ones too uncomfortably close with the state establishment.

Manzoor Pashteen is important of perhaps all the free speech heroes in Pakistan due to the influence he has been able to exert in a very short time and with no resources at all. And he managed to get under the skin of the Punjabi establishment, a sign of which was the state-backed propaganda against the movement on the mainstream media. The Punjab government even featured his image in an advisory against terrorists. And such state behavior ensued while no action was taken against the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, which made openly rebellious statements and perhaps contributed to pushing the limits of free speech in Pakistan itself.

The PTM is a completely grassroots movement and primarily making use of the social media, the PTM leadership rose and rallied its supporters and sympathizers and now even have two MPs in the parliament. Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, whose names were recently included in the Exit Control List for a while, have been just as vocal about the issues. However, they lack the central attention that Pashteen has been able to garner with his unlikely charisma. His trademark Pashteen cap has become a symbol of defiance and resistance among the PTM supporters.

ANP veterans and secular progressives Senator Afrasiab Khattak and former MP Bushra Gohar were suspended from party membership due to their sympathy for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and outspoken rhetoric against the military establishment. They are doing their bit to make the PTM grievances more mainstream, while also sending a message how the movement is larger than partisan agenda, considering how the state has been portraying Manzoor Pashteen as more or less treasonous. Whether his campaign will be any more effective than it is, considering how politically passive the rest of Pakistan is becoming under a strict suppression of dissent, it is yet to be seen.

It was not just the pro-PTM lawmakers who had a hard time in terms of expulsions and blacklistings on the Exit Control List. Award-winning human rights activists were not immune from the penalty too. Gulalai Ismail, an ethnic Pashtun who has been recognized by the Government of France on her work on her NGO project “Aware Girls” was the biggest victim in the anti-PTM witchhunt by the state. A girl who used to be a hero is now interrogated by the FIA on arrival and her name has been put on the Exit Control List.

In a year that saw major assaults on free speech in Pakistan, there is no shortage of heroes here. The Pakistani journalist, in general, suffered a very difficult year in 2018. This year marked the violation of the boundaries of the Karachi Press Club, something which had never even occurred in the darkest days under General Zia according to Ghazi Salahuddin. Journalists Taha S. Siddiqui and Gul Bukhari have been two major names as well. Taha was assaulted and chased by armed men in civilian clothing but who obviously had the state’s agenda to carry out against journalists who were doing inconvenient reporting. Before his name could have been put on the Exit Control List, he managed to make a safe exit to France. The clearly pro-PML-N Gul Bukhari, who was also abducted briefly by similar mysterious people, has been vocal against the military establishment and the incumbent PTI government. Both of them are still vocal against the state establishment on social media.

Source: The Daily Times

Another great free speech hero that cannot be commended enough not only for his contribution to free speech in Pakistan but for his service in general to humanity is Saif-ul-Malook, the lawyer of Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi was sentenced to death according to the It was his tireless efforts and advocacy that eventually helped overturn the death sentence of Asia Bibi and paved way for the Supreme Court to acquit her of the alleged charges. Now considering how hospitable Pakistan is to any such citizen, it is not a surprise that Saif-ul-Malook had to leave Pakistan and has now reportedly taken temporary asylum in the Netherlands.

Ali Raza Abidi, the former MQM MP, who has been openly critical of the incumbent government and was also estranged with the MQM leadership, also got silenced by unknown forces this Christmas. His assassination is a reminder that individual thought and secular liberal minds remain to be an endangered and threatened species in this country.

Finally, probably the greatest free speech hero we will ever have passed away earlier this year. Asma Jahangir who will remain to be the guiding beacon for people pursuing

As long as Pakistan remains a battleground for free speech, we will continue to see such obvious and unlikely heroes emerge.

Read about the Pakistan free speech hero for the year 2017 here.

How We Treat Our Heroes

Source: Pakistan Today

The people who are at the helm of communication and authority in Pakistan often seem to be worried about the image of the country. They would go to great lengths to try, devoting all their energies to divert attention from all the bad news about Pakistan.

However, the same people would turn a blind eye when the heroes earning a good name for Pakistan are treated in a horrific manner if they ever differ from the state sanctioned views. Only recently, the way Gulalai Ismail has been treated with her passport confiscated and her name put in Exit Control List is just an example. All because of her support for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

This has been just a glimpse of the greater decay at the heart of the Pakistani democracy. A lot of commentators are saying that they have not witnessed such an assault on free speech even in the days of the Zia regime. Perhaps for the first time ever, armed guards from a security agency violated the sanctity of the Karachi Press Club.

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What is even worse, supposedly the most progressive parties are shutting their most brilliant and outspoken leaders down because they are expressing dissent with the Pakistani establishment. ANP has just recently suspended membership of Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar. This is what it comes down to when you talk about democracy in Pakistan.

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It probably would not have been half as much disappointing if it was just a case of Pakistani people giving up on democracy. Because unfortunately, that is what has been happening for decades now. Despite all the sacrifices from brave pro-democracy leaders, achieving what people like me cannot even remotely imagine about. What really breaks your heart is that this is how we treat our heroes.