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.

 

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.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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.

My Pakistani Persons of the Year 2019: Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir

Source: Pakistan Today

Never before in the history of this country have we ever seen politicians such as Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir. The anti-establishment independent MPs from Waziristan are the standard-bearers of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movment, which fights for the civil rights of the Pashtun ethnic minority in Pakistan and against their targeted killings since they have been largely demonized and racially profiled by the Punjabi dominated military following the operations against military insurgency.

Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir aided the movement’s leader Manzoor Pashteen to articulate the viewpoint of the Pashtun people and make their grievances known nationwide despite a draconian state crackdown. They reminded the world about the non-violent and progressive political traditions of the Pashtun people and that Talibanization was an engineered phenomenon in an otherwise peaceful community.

In May 2019, they exposed the authoritarianism of the Pakistani state, when they protested the un. The military checkpoint at Kharqamar opened fire on non-violent protesters without a warning. However, both Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir were arrested following the incident, with the state institutions held to no accountability for massacring thirteen people. Ali Wazir’s detention was even more painful considering the fact that he almost lost his entire family to terrorism during the “War on Terror” days.

After months of incarceration and torture, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir were released in Septemeber 2019. The Speaker of the ruling pro-establishment party did not deliberately issue their production orders. However, Mohsin Dawar did have the opportuntity to speak his heart out after his release, which was shamelessly censored by the State Parliament TV with an ironical segment on “Lahore’s Historical Places.”

Check that particular clip over here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=797188270711265

 

Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir have singlehandedly exposed the authoritarianism with their non-violent political resistance and have given a new dimension to parliamentary politics in a country where the debate on the Assembly floor has been almost rendered useless. Mohsin Dawar has also co-sponsored a bill proposing more representation from the tribal areas, which passed in the lower house. In a country where passing laws through Presidential ordinances has become the norm, parliamentarians like Dawar and Wazir inspire and represent not only the youth but every repressed voice in the country.

Read about my Pakistani Person of the year in 2018 here.

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.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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.

Khalid Hussain: Another Casualty for Pakistan’s Freedom of Press

Source: Khalid Hussain/The Nation

Pakistan is probably seeing perhaps the worst year in press freedom under the Bajwa-Imran regime in an age in which communications are supposed to advance.

The Nation, one of the traditionally conservative English language newspapers, which had taken a turn for a more liberal narrative in recent years, fired its political cartoonist about a week ago or so. Muhammad Khalid had drawn a satirical cartoon highlighting the toothlessness of Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose megalomania has created an illusion of his person becoming an important statesman capable of resolving long-time international disputes.

The context of this caricature is President Trump offering to mediate between Pakistan and India to help resolve the Kashmir issue.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Here is what The Nation Apology reads:

We would like to apologize deeply for a cartoon that appeared on our pages. The artwork fell short of our editorial standards and does not reflect our editorial policy. It should never have appeared.

We are proud to be a nationalistic paper and we regret sincerely the attention taken by an artwork that was inappropriate, especially at the time of the UN General Assembly session taking place in New York.

The necessary steps have been taken to ensure our internal procedures. And once again, we humbly extend our sincere apologies and regret.

This dismissal may sound like the prerogative of the editor of the publication, who paradoxically had published it, but this is becoming all too common in the self-censoring media in Pakistan. The Nation, an about-to-collapse publication which has been heavily infiltrated with the sympathizers and representatives of the military establishment, could obviously not bear to support such expression on its pages.

The curbs on media freedom in Pakistan have taken a turn for the worse under the Imran-Bajwa regime and several international observers, including Reporters Sans Frontiers, have critiicized the administaration for falsely denying it. Recently, Dawn’s iconic magazine The Herald also closed its operations and several other printing publications are under the threat of vanishing in the country.

Speaking to Gandhara, Khalid Hussain said, “I don’t know how long they will not be printing my cartoons or whether they will ever print my cartoons [again].” He further clarified what he wanted to convey in the cartoon. “I didn’t aim to hit Imran Khan personally. But as the prime minister of the country, he symbolically represents the country he rules,” he said. “What I felt was that Trump has repeatedly assured Pakistan to mediate between India and Pakistan. But he later said that Modi has not agreed to [his mediation].”

Khalid may still try making his political caricatures independently but can never be sure how he is going to pay his bills. This concern has become the biggest moral compass for many professionals in the journalism industry in Pakistan, which increasingly deprives them of fair and timely wages (if they are paid at all) and editorial protection.

This is yet another casualty for freedom of the press in perhaps one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. But then again, the truth being a casualty in Pakistan is just another day in the war-like theocratic Sultanate.

How Pakistan Observed the International Day of the Victims of Religious Violence

Source: Reuters/Hindustan Times

When the UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared August 22 as a new UN International Day for the victims of violence based on religion and faith, Pakistan was certainly a country that came to mind. It is an open secret that Pakistan holds a dismal record of offering all its citizens equal rights and the freedom to practice its religion. For years now, Pakistan has been on the list of countries of most concern by the United States State Department and there are good reasons behind it. Pakistan’s problems with its minority religious communities date back as early as 1953, if not earlier.

While you would expect the Government of Pakistan to introspect on this day and actually vow to start making amends with the minority citizens, they spent the day lecturing India instead. In continuation of its campaigns condemning the Indian administration and comparing it to the Nazi Party, the Prime Minister reminded of the “ethnic cleansing” in Kashmir.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The Minister of Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, who should be the responsible office-holder for responding for the rights of the citizens that have been attacked on the basis of their faith.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

She instead was busy writing to the UNICEF complaining that actor Priyanka Chopra should be removed from her position as a Peace Ambassador for some imaginary offenses.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

This was a great opportunity for the Pakistani administration to concede all the wrongs done to the minority religious communities in Pakistan, especially the most frequently targeted Hindus and Christians. And mentioning

Pakistani American Ahmedi activist Kashif Chaudhary made sure to remind the government at least about the state of Ahmed

 

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

He also mentioned the ridiculous notion of the President of an Islamic Republic, who would never dare to utter the word “secular” in connection with his country, worried about the decaying state of secularism in India. I agree with him.

 

 

While Pakistani nationalists were celebrating the meeting of President Trump with Prime Minister Imran Khan, the very same leader listened to someone these patriots would not stand. Trump met with an elderly Pakistani expatriate Abdul Shakoor, who represented the persecuted Ahmediyya community of Pakistan settled around the world. Shaan Taseer, human rights activist and the son of slain Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, accompanied him to translate his message to the President. The poor man was sentenced to five years in prison with a heavy fine for selling religious books. He informed the President that he could not identify as a Muslim in his native Pakistan but he can in the United States.

 

The current US administration is in particular interested in religious freedom around the world. Vice President Mike Pence has issued a statement during a religious freedom summit rebuking Pakistan for the state of its religious freedom and urged the government to release Professor Junaid Hafeez accused of blasphemy. However, it was a shame that President Trump did not publicly bring the religious persecution in Pakistan during his meeting with the Prime Minister.

Other than that, there is no count of the number of people abused and killed from the Hindu and Christian communities which are routinely targeted by the majority religious community. The forced conversion of Hindu and Christian girls is on the rise too and the local law enforcement is proving to be inadequate for either providing security or justice to the affected citizens, who are effectively second class citizens in Pakistan.

You can only hope that an administration that claims to be very tolerant toward the minority religious groups of Pakistan would know better than imaginary standards of social justice like “Riyasat-e-Medina” or the Medina State. You can only hope that they would have the sense to address the problem in their country first because that is the least what their citizens expect from them and lecture India on Nazism and fascism later. Otherwise, you can only hope that the United States should finally take a stand and threaten Pakistan with sanctions.

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.