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.

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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.

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.

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.

A Wake Up Call for the Interior Minister

Source: Dawn

Ahsan Iqbal is easily one of the most dignified, educated, and well spoken politicians in Pakistan. He is a visionary and has been promoting a progressive economic vision since the earlier terms of PML-N.

He became an unlikely candidate for the position of Interior Minister when the self-righteous Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, an ultra conservative pro-establishment PML-N dissident, stepped down. When the Prime Minister was also disqualified, the tensions got even more intense and paved way for Ahsan Iqbal’s rise to the powerful but controversial position of becoming the civilian security boss of the country. Many expected that the position will not suit him well, a man of a scholarly background. Especially because it was in this current tenure that the social media was blacked out during a protest for the first time in history in Pakistan.

Back in November, when Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah was occupying the parliament square in Islamabad, the greatest test came of his leadership. His resolutions to the problem drastically failed when due to the unwillingjness of the military, a half backed operation ended up further strengthening the hands of the rogue Labaik Tehreek Ya Rasool Allah, a radical Barelvi political cult whose agenda is to reinforce the laws about the Finality of the Prophethood and to make life further miserable for the already marginalized Ahmedi community of Pakistan. Ahmedis are perceived as a threat by orthodox religious Muslims in Pakistan to the tenet that Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, even though the Ahmedis respond that they share the same belief.

The recent controversy over the Ahmedi oath for the parliament members sparked the protest in the first place with the blame falling on the , apart from generally on the entire leadership of PML-N. Sunni clerics even issued fatwas that voting for the party was haram or forbidden.

Despite the threat to the party, and some would say that particularly because of it, the PML-N federal government decided to appease the extremist Muslims by making laws about blasphemy and speech even stricter. The Ministry of Interior, as well as the National Counter Terrorism Agency, are running campaigns that openly call for people to hunt for perceived blasphemies in the guise of acting against hate speech. While such narrative has not been started by the Government of Pakistan so proactively, as you can thank the narrative of the local cleric for that, it has emerged with full force as a countering reaction to unpopular speech on social media.

Today, hours ago actually, Ahsan Iqbal was shot at by an angry citizen in a meeting with the constituents in his native Narowal District. Fortunately, the bullet only brushed his arm and his life was spared. The would-be assassin Abid Hussain has been captured and he has confessed to have made an attempt on the Minister’s life because of the “Finality of Prophethood” or “Khatm-e-Nabuwat” issue.  While this complex term may not mean anything to most people, it is the article of faith of the Muslim population, and takes an extreme in the more radical elements of the Barelvi sect that is particularly devotional to the Prophet.

Source: Times of Islamabad

While the Minister has been lucky, all the citizens hunted by the extremists such as his assailant are not so much. Especially when the one putting them to death is the judiciary. The 30 year old blogger who got convicted by the court for just expressing himself was not so lucky. Often people tend to forget how harmful and dangerous these so-called responsible information campaigns are. And it is important to remember that government campaigns calling for reporting blasphemy are as dangerous in creating the mindset that resulted in the attempt on the life of Ahsan Iqbal as the hateful teachings in the mosque.

I wish the Interior Minister will consider this unfortunate event a wake up call. We are very happy that he is safe but it is time that he starts thinking about safeguarding the speech and lives of his citizens. Of course, he can’t fight the atrocious courts in Pakistan but at least he can tone down the explicit witch hunt. Or the same poison that stung him today could get just about any one of us.

My Pakistani Person of the Year 2017: The Missing Blogger

Source: Beena Sarwar

Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, Salman Haider and the original Bhensa, with all of them largely unrelated but contributing in their own right to the cause of free speech, other than many more bloggers that have been abducted by the Pakistani deep state have made an impact on the society never seen before in the country.

This is the effect of the age of social media.

The year 2017 revealed the ugly, draconian face of the government and the state of Pakistan to its relatively insulated urban population like never before. I came to know first about the urgency of the issue when American scholar Christine Fair tweeted about the safety of Bhensa, a satirical antithetical blogger known for his scathing criticism of Islam in particular, and who obviously got harassed by patriotic bloggers in return.

Pakistan has always been an undemocratic and authoritarian country in its true essence. Meet its figures in the government, even including many in elected office, and their view on state affairs and the people of Pakistan are bound to disappoint the democrat.However, the abduction of the dissident bloggers finally truly revealed the state of democracy and freedom of speech in Pakistan to the entire world, with the most prominent news media around the globe covering the news from the New York Times to the Daily Telegraph.

The civil protest against the abduction of the bloggers still was not quite near as strong as it should have been but it did attract attention around the world. One nightmare that the Pakistani military establishment is not used to is the urban civilian educated population protesting against it.

The way the Pakistani deep state entities have approached the dissenting bloggers really reveal the thought process behind repressing political dissidents in the country. Things were going all smooth with the detention and extrajudicial killings of the Baloch resistance at home but considering the local backlash and the critical coverage in the international media about the blogger issue, perhaps this is the reason why all three of the most prominent bloggers were returned home unlike people finding their roadside corpse as previously found in the case of journalists like Saleem Shahzad.

The page Bhensa reappeared as well. However, there are still question marks behind the true identity of Bhensa thought to be Ahmed Raza Naseer of Nankana Sahib, another one of detained and acquitted bloggers, but one way or the other, the page has arguably never been restored to its original expression since the abduction. On facebook, the Bhensa ID is used to actually run an anti-liberal page.

All the returned bloggers said that they were tortured in their own way. Some like Netherlands based Goraya, perhaps the most defiant of them all, were more vocal and more explicit about what happened to them. He also directly accused the Pakistani military while speaking in the a side event of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Others like Salman Haider were far subtler, being a gentle, poetic soul caught up in the storm.

A national campaign of disinformation was launched by the trolls and journalists on the dark side to accuse the detained bloggers of blasphemy. Prominent news anchors and social conservative anchors, some of which are often the usual suspects for any cause backed by the deep state, were in the forefront to build up public anger and hate against the liberal bloggers.

Something which the state apparatus strongly backs to this day as new ways of legitimizing the hunt to crack down on free speech are being put into effect. Blogger Taimur Raza became the first to be sentenced to death for blasphemy on social media by a “counter-terrorism court.” What a joke! Another Ayaz Nizami is under detention for the same accusations. Back in August, even Punhal Sario, a Sindhi activist campaigning for the return of missing activists is thought to go missing himself. Most recently, peace activist Raza Khan has gone missing with no resolution to his case to this last day of 2017.

But it was not revealed who the great souls of justice were who were dispensing justice to the blaspheming bloggers. Only recently have the bloggers been acquitted by the courts of any such allegations due to the complete lack of evidence. Which begs the question why the dangerous tradition of blasphemy hunting goes unpunished and without reprimand in Pakistan. And like always, you could count on the disgusting goons of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah to harass and pelt stones at the activists supporting the bloggers.

However, I do not consider this verdict as a moment to celebrate as such since the legitimacy of these courts has already been tarnished for standing behind the draconian blasphemy law and announcing death sentences to freethinking citizens who committed no offense to humanity.

Despite the efforts of cover up by mainstream media in Pakistan, which is in the complete clutches of the military establishment, and despite other distractions on the political front, the impact the missing blogger has made on the civil society has proved to be the most moving. This issue has raised questions about the conscience of the society claiming to protect free speech and democracy.

They have been currently haunting M. Jibran Nasir, arguably the most progressive voice in mainstream politics, and an honorable mention is due for my Pakistani of the year 2014. The notorious TV Channel Bol Network has been in the forefront of targeting Jibran Nasir for raising his voice for the rights of Ahmedi citizens, which in his opinion is due to his opposition to the acquittal of the murder of a Karachi youth named Shahzeb at the hands of the son of a feudal from the Jatoi tribe. Whatever may be Jibran Nasir’s reasons, I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about changing the Second Amendment, and same goes for Minister Zaid Hamid et al.

In 2017, an elected Prime Minister was disqualified and ejected by the Supreme Court and when a group of Barelvi clerics brought the state down to its knees. But none of that matters and have had an impact on the consciousness of a nation like the missing blogger, perhaps only second to the brutal murder of Mishaal Khan, which arguably was largely ignored anyway.

But these missing bloggers still came from some layers of privilege in the Pakistani society, but as many of them have been pointing out like Sabeen, who is going to care about the struggle of the missing persons in Baluchistan?

Read about my Pakistani person of the year 2017 here.

Pakistani Idiot of the Year 2017: Khadim Hussain Rizvi

Now you can’t really say that our Pakistani idiot of the year this time around is really an idiot because he has been grabbing the entire nations by the balls and making them do what he essentially wanted to. Albeit for a limited period of time. He has got hundreds of followers mesmerized by him despite obviously being a foul-mouthed psychopath who wants to see blood on the streets and want everyone killed who does not subscribe to his views about the finality of Prophethood, or even someone who even remotely have sympathy for those who do not.

He is a dangerous idiot because he has endangered the legitimacy of the government and the rule of law in Pakistan. And the state apparatus that has been so tolerant to him and his goons of the Tehreek Labaik Ya-Rasool Allah probably do not realize that he has singlehandedly undermined their authority with seemingly irreparable damage caused by the approval of his unreasonable demands on the alleged attempt to amend the Finality of Prophethood clause. I cannot begin to get into the horrific world of Khadim Hussain Rizvi but in my tradition of celebrating the most hideous instances of idiocy every year, here is a little glimpse of what the not-so-charismatic-and-abusive cleric-politician is capable of.

This is the wildness and viciousness of the religious extremism that shows its face when it cannot express itself in violence.

There have been other quite a few idiotic incidents this year as well and please forgive me for not keeping track of all the nonsense that has been going on through this year, so please free to add something to this list if you want to bother. One of them being the goofball they have hired as the new DG ISPR Gen. Asif Ghafoor claiming to be a “fundamentalist and not an extremist,” apart from a wide array of idiotic political statements. High Court Justice Shaukat Siddiqui for taking unsolicited action against bloggers and suggesting that social media be blocked if blasphemous content is not removed. Aamer Liaquat Hussain for his ridiculous blasphemy witch hunt on BOL TV Network and Orya Maqbool Jan for his declaration of Jihad against secular bloggers.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Jamaat-e-Islami Chief Prof. Ibrahim Khan for taking pride in undoing the secular curriculum in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and his Emir Siraj-ul-Haq offering to bear the expenses of the wife and children of Mumtaz Qadri to honor the “martyr.” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Minister of Interior Ahsan Iqbal, who is otherwise a sane and supposedly progressive politician, by being the most responsible authority figures under whose eyes the social media and information ban was imposed on November 26. Pervez Musharraf, who has apparently completely gone senile after losing power for praising the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba for supposedly supporting him and thinking it is cool to shame his political rivals by insulting women. Right at the beginning of this year, our honorable Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif anti-Semitic rant in reaction to fake news about Israel.  And of course, who could forget the filthy McCarthyist hate speech-laden tirade by Captain Safdar on the floor of the assembly.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi is particularly an idiot to even alienate the most religious of Barelvi Muslims by his unacceptable behavior, for which the devil in me also has admiration for him as he has contaminated the supposed sanctity of religious teachings. But such a useful idiot he was for the state, which let him loose to harass and harness an elected government.

The real idiots should actually be the people of Pakistan, who actually supported his cause one way or the other, but wouldn’t that be every year?

Read about the Pakistani idiot of the last year here.