The Debate

Pakistan’s Missing Activists and the State’s War on Online Anonymity

Recent Features

The Debate

Pakistan’s Missing Activists and the State’s War on Online Anonymity

The disappearance of prominent online voices has a chilling effect on other nonconforming bloggers.

Pakistan’s Missing Activists and the State’s War on Online Anonymity
Credit: Twitter/ Jibran Nasir

Without touching on who might be responsible for the unmistakably coordinated abductions of activists in Pakistan – regardless of how self-evident that may or may not be – it’s important to address what these kidnappings represent.

The simplest way to do that is to profile the missing activists, list down the allegations against them, and gauge the reaction to the abductions.

An organization going by the name of “Civil Society of Pakistan” on Monday registered a blasphemy case under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), against some of the missing activists.

The chairman of the Civil Society of Pakistan, Muhammad Tahir, claims these activists were administrators of Facebook pages that “not only posted inflammatory content against state agencies but were guilty of the worst kind of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).”

Let’s underscore the obvious: an FIR has been lodged against writers and bloggers that are already missing after having been abducted over these very allegations.

Let’s also highlight a crucial tidbit: Tariq Asad will be providing legal representation for Muhammad Tahir over the petition. Asad has previously represented Lal Masjid’s Abdul Aziz, a man who has defied the writ of the state, openly issued suicide bombing threats, and vowed support for the Islamic State.

The blasphemy petition comes after a vigorous social media campaign by Islamist circles that accused the activists of being “blasphemers” and thereby implying that they had been “asking for” whatever transpired against them.

The campaign, almost as meticulously coordinated as the abductions themselves, also reverberated with the categorical declaration that anyone campaigning for these activists was a “blasphemer” as well.

The latter allegation of blasphemy is almost as unsubstantiated as the former. Such charges are also uncannily reminiscent of the “Kafir kafir Shia kafir, jo na maanay woh bhi kafir” (“Infidels, infidels, the Shia are infidels; anyone who disagrees is also an infidel”) chant popularized by the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan – a banned anti-Shia militant group – now known as Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ).

Despite the similarities, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan on Sunday said it is “unfair to link everything to (ASWJ chief) Ahmad Ludhianvi.” On January 11, Nisar had said in the Senate that “outlawed sectarian organizations should not be equated with… terrorist outfits.”

It is this very patent state endeavor to draw a nonexistent line between religious bigotry and jihadism that is at the heart of the activists’ abductions. These kidnappings are targeting the last line of defense for the citizen: online anonymity.

Throughout the political upheavals and varying levels of autocracy in Pakistan over the past 70 years, the state has had – at the very least – sufficient control over media, TV, and all relevant literature, to restrict the narrative at best and unilaterally determine it at worst.

Those dissenting voices not jailed under the worst dictatorships had limited drawing rooms as safe spaces to exchange ideas the state might have deemed rebellious. Any revolutionary voices that might have capitalized on openings between draconian eras were posthumously silenced, or at the very least, made exceedingly inaccessible for the masses.

The turn of the millennium and the accompanying internet boom changed everything. The advent and surge of social media in the past ten years threw the cat among the pigeons. All of a sudden, you no longer needed to dig up condemned literature, be in touch with exiled activists, or catch signals from neighboring TV or radio stations to access the counter-narrative.

Religion, nationalism, military, history — every idea was losing its monolith status, and every question that had hitherto been reviled as blasphemous, treasonous, or at the very least contemptuous, had become a multiple choice question with the answers just a few clicks away.

As the bearing between the media and sections of social media kept enlarging, the two tangential narratives eventually began existing in different dimensions. The state, the self-appointed center of mass in the equation, gradually became wary of the non-uniform gravity.

Last year’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, commonly known as the cybercrime law, which has been worked on in synchronicity with growing state apprehension vis-à-vis internet freedom, was pushed through the National Assembly. Despite local activists and international rights groups highlighting many concerns with regards to overbearing clampdown on free speech and basic human rights, the bill was passed into law.

What this means is that per the Pakistan Penal Code, crimes committed on the web now have the same punishment for offenders as they would outside cyberspace. So anyone found guilty of posting anything “blasphemous” from their Facebook or Twitter account can now be hanged, which is the penalty for breaching Section 295-C of the PPC.

The state’s merger of the virtual and real worlds — and its hegemony over both — now was complete barring one minor hindrance: anonymity.

How does the state punish “offenders” who wore the cloak of anonymity? Yes, there are tools to track devices and trace IP addresses, but likewise if one is tech-savvy enough there are ways to wear multiple layers of anonymity.

Whereas editors could’ve been coerced into revealing anonymous authors or those using pseudonyms, there’s no one to bully a lone internet user who puts up a blog, website, or social media page if the administrator can’t be traced.

The only solution was the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) interference and blocking of these websites. A progressive Urdu page Roshni, for one, was banned at least thrice. Each time, a newer version would spring back up almost immediately, garnering as much of a following as the previous one in a matter of days.

Hence, the sole option remaining for the self-styled security state was intimidation.

Many anonymous social media pages and accounts have thus shut up shop since the abduction of these activists, who may not have anything to do with the content they have apparently been kidnapped over. The ambiguity over the causes behind these abductions also suits the official narrative in the state’s war on anonymity.

Now every nonconforming anonymous blogger in Pakistan thinks they’re next.