PAKISTAN: Interior ministry crackdown on social media sees 200 persons grilled

The common perception in Pakistan, that ordinary citizens are not free to express their thoughts, has been validated with state inaction against hate mongers and clamping down on social media activists.

What began as a crackdown on blasphemy and hurting religious sentiments has quickly spiralled into curbs on free speech, unveiling the true intentions of the state: to shield itself from criticism.

Freedom of expression is gravely endangered at present, with Pakistan’s Cyber Crime Wing of the Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) ordered by the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, to take immediate action against any person or group involved in dishonoring or maligning the Pakistan Army on social media. As a result, more than 200 activists were taken into custody in recent times. While most have been released, their laptops and cell phones were confiscated for some days, and all the data taken out.

In a press release, the Minister stated that the guarantee of freedom of expression allowed in the Constitution is not applicable to matters of security and defense. He has also been quoted to have said, “Ridiculing the army or its officers under the garb of freedom of expression is unacceptable.”

The recent crackdown was a result of social media users criticizing the military establishment after its issue with the government over the Dawn Leaks, where the newspaper reported on a verbal spat between the military and civil bigwigs over militancy.

According to the Express Tribune newspaper, the action was taken by the Counter-Terrorism Wing of the FIA instead of its Cyber Crime Wing. The daily paper noted that more arrests were likely to take place in the coming days.

Criticism and dissent are traditionally abhorred and discouraged in the Pakistan political system. The Pew Research Centre ranked Pakistan in the bottom ten countries for freedom of expression. Moreover, the “Freedom on the Net 2016” report, by US based research firm Freedom House, has placed Pakistan in the list of countries with lowest scores for “Freedom on the Net”.

With social media activists being targeted for criticizing the army, the shrinking space for free expression may backfire as it did in the era of the Zia dictatorship, whose regime saw an extreme clampdown on print media.

Curbing free speech over social media is a new tactic of the Pakistani government for political gain and to prevent defamation. To appease the military, the Interior Minister announced that criticism of the military will not be tolerated, in addition to the media blackout on military operations.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has time and again raised its concerns over the alarming state of freedom of expression in Pakistan. The AHRC took the lead in criticizing and opposing the Pakistan Electronic Cyber Crime Act (PECA) as a draconian law, which is now being used to shrink social media space. Free speech should never be regulated in true democracies. Free speech entails that any dissenting opinion is respected as much as state narrative. Without free speech, the institution of democracy is reduced to a farce, becoming a tool for authoritarianism and censorship.

Sadly, Pakistan’s judiciary has been an accomplice of the state in its war against free speech. The Chief Justice of Islamabad’s High Court, while hearing the case on bloggers accused of blasphemy, stated in his order:

A bill [must] be tabled before the Parliament for deliberations and decision about [an] amendment in Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, 2016 to authorize the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block information systems in case service providers failed to remove blasphemous content.

The detailed verdict makes it clear that if the authorities were unable to filter out blasphemous content, as required under law, all such accounts and even the information systems would be blocked at once. The PTA director general assured the court that if, within a period of two months, decisive steps were not taken by the relevant information system providers/administrators, “as a last and final resort, the authority would block all such sites at once without any space.”

This in essence would mean that website such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and others could be blocked entirely, as the PTA does not have the technical expertise to block any single post deemed “offensive to religious sensibilities or found to be critical to Pakistani military”.

In fact, the military establishment has been actively involved in surveillance of the country’s online activities for several years, as reported by Privacy International UK. A report released by the organization claimed earlier this year that various intelligence agencies were tapping thousands of phones in Pakistan. In June 2013, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sought to develop a mass surveillance system by directly tapping the main fiber optic cables entering Pakistan, carrying most of the nation’s network communication data.

The threat to fundamental rights on the pretext of national security, vested interests and blasphemy must not be tolerated. Criticism of state institutions, including the army, must not be deterred by ‘misuse of freedom of speech’. ‘Hurting religious sentiments’ cannot be the benchmark for free speech, particularly when the religious sentiments of minority groups are regularly infringed upon by the state. Civil society must act in unison for the common cause of freedom of speech. Restrictions on freedom of expression will infringe upon every non derogatory right guaranteed and enshrined in the country’s Constitution. The AHRC urges policy makers and the government to reconsider these restrictions, which can only cause more chaos and anarchy in a country already marred by militancy and extremism.