In May 2017, an officer from the counterterrorism department of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) called Taha Siddiqui – a journalist working with foreign media outlets – asking him to appear for an interrogation over his social media activity.
Siddiqui, refusing to appear, filed a petition before the Islamabad High Court, accusing the FIA of harassing him. Explaining the reason behind his reluctance to appear, Siddiqui wrote in the petition: “…there have been several reports in the press where such phone calls are made and once the person who is to be interrogated sets out to the FIA Headquarters, he is either picked up and disappeared or detained illegally.”
The court sought a response from the FIA, and directed its officials to stop harassing the journalist. Siddiqui’s counsel, Asma Jahangir, a renowned lawyer and activist, accused the FIA of treating her client as a terrorist, not a journalist. Siddiqui’s case has now been transferred to the cyber crime unit of the FIA.
Taha Siddiqui was not the only individual summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency for his activity on social media. Days before, a member of Pakistan’s largest opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Salar Kakar was picked by the FIA over his tweets criticizing the military.
Crackdown on Social Media
At the end of May, an undated, unnamed list of 21 social media accounts started circulating among Pakistan’s journalists and activists. Among them were several PTI members, as well as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s social media team members. Pakistan TV channels later that day reported that 200 social media users had been listed by the FIA for posting anti-military content online.
Minister of State for Information, Broadcasting, and National Heritage Marriyum Aurangzeb had warned of a crackdown under Pakistan’s notorious cyber crime laws. “Those who are using social media for slanderous and negative propaganda against the constitutional state institutions … are under strict surveillance and action will be taken against the users of these accounts under the Cyber Crimes Law,” she said in a statement released on May 14.
Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, who heads the FIA, defended the crackdown, terming some of the content available on social media a “threat to the national values.”
The crackdown will impact not only journalists and activists but politicians as well. Since the last general elections in 2013, all of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties have created social media wings and they officially campaign on behalf of political parties.
Abduction of Activists and Bloggers
The crackdown on dissenters started in early January, when five bloggers were abducted from various cities across Pakistan. Four of them — Salman Haider, Ahmad Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer — were released after 21 days. While the others remained silent, Goraya spoke with several media outlets, accusing the state agencies of abducting him.
Speaking with BBC, Goraya recounted severe torture he went through during his abduction. “We knew it was over… We will die under torture,” he said.
While the military denied having any involvement in the bloggers’ abductions, analysts believe authorities had been hatching the plan since November 2015.
“It seems as if this started in the term of COAS [Chief of Army Staff] Qamar Javed Bajwa, but in fact, the frustration with social media, the backlash, and planning for the crackdown began way back at the end of the year 2015,” says Gul Bukhari, a Lahore-based political analyst.
Bukhari claims a strong pushback by well-informed, ordinary citizens against the state narrative online initiated the crackdown. “The plan to abduct the bloggers was hatched last year, but they had to wait for the right time to execute it.”
Many see the growing intolerance for the criticism of military as a part of the current chief of army staff toughening his stance. Even before he was nominated for his current post by the prime minister, there had been a propaganda campaign against Bajwa, terming him “Qadiani” – a derogatory term used for Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community.
Much of the criticism directed towards him focused on him being a “Nawaz man,” and going soft on civilians.
Wajahat Saeed Khan, in a report for The Times, claimed the military feared General Qamar Bajwa would agree to let the civilian government curb his powers. Khan reported an informal exchange between the COAS and junior officers, who expressed their concerns regarding the attempts made by the civilian government.
On April 20, in an unprecedented move, Major General Asif Ghafoor, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s media wing, “rejected” a notification by the prime minister based on the recommendations of the Inquiry Committee established to probe the “leak” of information on a closed-door meeting between the country’s civil-military leadership. It was a clear sign of the military’s displeasure with the civilian government.
The tweet rejecting the notification was, however, taken back after successful negotiations between the civilian government and military top brass.
Given Bajwa’s image issues, some have theorized that he orchestrated the crackdown on dissent to bolster his standing with the military. However, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, a Lahore-based journalist and columnist, disputes the assumption that the current COAS could be singlehandedly behind the ongoing campaign against the military critics.
Unless he ends up overthrowing the government altogether, Khuldune believes, the COAS is rarely solely responsible for shaping a policy, and that too within a couple of months of his appointment. Instead, “The military top brass carefully formulates the official Army stance, giving due thought – of course – to the institution’s own best interests.”
Khuldune also asserts that while intelligence agencies might have been directly behind the abduction of bloggers, it must be pointed out that the current civilian government – and even the judiciary – has been equally complicit in the online crackdown on free speech.
“Immediately after the abduction we saw the government issue SMS notifications and newspaper ads against ‘social media blasphemers,’ while the Islamabad High Court declared these dissenters terrorists ‘worse than jihadists,’” he notes.
Taha Siddiqui sees the ongoing crackdown as the continuation of a trend. “Dissenters have always been treated so; it started with Baloch, then started happening in KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] and FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas], then we heard of cases in Sindh and Karachi… Now they are doing so in Punjab.”
Khuldune is of the opinion that Bajwa inherited issues like the Dawn Leaks, turmoil in Indian-administered Kashmir, and the Kulbhushan Jadhav episode, which allowed the military to take a more hardline approach on most matters.
“It was epitomized by the ISPR ‘rejecting the notification’ on Dawn Leaks issues by the PM House,” he says. “Deteriorating ties with India have historically given the Army the leverage over the civilian government, and in turn more clout over media as well. Targeting online dissenters is an offshoot of the establishment targeting any form of critique, using the age-old ‘national interests’ card.”
Gul Bukhari is of the opinion that the state is terrified of social media because it can’t effectively censor, control, ban or manage it, resulting in the state losing control of the narrative.
“A series of events has demonstrated that social media is winning over state tactics: the bloggers had to be released and the world found out what the establishment had been up to and why; the FIA’s harassment of microbloggers and journalists had to be abandoned after worldwide protests against the high-handedness of the state,” Bukhari added.
Siddiqui feels the military is not only becoming more intolerant of dissent, but is also under immense pressure to maintain the old order. “They want to keep things as they were when criticizing the military was considered taboo, but with the advent of social media, and a boom of news channels, and factual information becoming easily available,” he explains. “The military seems to be struggling to maintain its hold and thus the reactions by the military have become harsher.”
Umer Ali is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He reports on human rights and terrorism. He can be reached on Twitter at @iamumer1