On February 11, Pakistan’s federal cabinet under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan approved new laws to regulate social media. These rules, dubbed the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, make it mandatory for international social media companies to immediately remove any material deemed undesirable by the authorities and to provide data about the social media accounts of Pakistani citizens to the authorities whenever asked. Companies will also be bound to establish their data centers within Pakistan and to open offices along with focal persons in Islamabad.
Although digital surveillance by the military intelligence agencies is nothing new in Pakistan, the new laws drew sharp criticism from the activists and human rights organizations. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the rules will gag social media in the country. According to Media Matters for Democracy, the laws are “dictatorial.” Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan commented that these rules would give the authorities unflinching power to stifle social media. The international organization Committee to Protect Journalists has demanded a roll-back of these new laws.
On the other hand, the social media giants including Facebook and Twitter — who have also been targeted in these new laws by being obligated to start local data hubs and to comply with any demanded content manipulation — have spoken up against these undemocratic practices. Reportedly they have jointly written to the prime minister to condemn the proposed laws and clarify that in this situation they will be forced to suspend their operations in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Constrained Digital Space: Past and Present
Even before the new rules, the digital situation in Pakistan was already quite authoritarian. That can easily be conveyed by the ranking given to Pakistan in the Freedom on the Net report compiled annually by Freedom House. For many years, the country has been ranked among the worst countries of the world on that index; Pakistan was among the 10 worst countries of the 65 surveyed in the 2019 Freedom on the Net report.
According to NDTV, the report found that “over 800,000 websites hosting political, religious and social content remain blocked in the country, while Pakistan Telecommunication Authority continues to restrict content in a nontransparent and arbitrary fashion.” The report also observed that government and military agencies often pressure both users and social media companies to remove unwanted content and thus force writers to practice self-censorship. It also pointed out that authorities frequently disrupt telecom services during ongoing protests, national elections and religious holidays.
The current government of Imran Khan, which was brought into power by controversial elections in 2018 and is widely accused of working on the military’s behalf, has made the situation visibly worse. Human Rights Watch in its recent report observed that contrary to his claims of social justice, Khan’s administration has increased restrictions on the media since taking office. As per the complaints of the eminent journalists in the international press, media freedom has declined and the country is passing through one of its darkest periods in decades.
The new social media rules are not the first time that the surveillance of internet traffic has been legally implemented in Pakistan. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), commonly known as the Cyber Crimes Law, was passed on August 11, 2016, after a rather limited and hasty legislative process. The act, on the pretext of stopping blasphemy, authorized security agencies to monitor internet content, curtail undesired remarks, and prosecute those who posted the material.
Being apprehensive of its implications, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had warned even before the Cyber Crimes Law’s enactment that it will have immense ramifications for the freedom of expression, human rights, and democracy in the country. The commission also questioned the harsh penalties allowed for internet usage practices that are otherwise common, thus opening the door for the law’s misuse or selective use. Later events in the country only endorsed the suspicions the commission had raised about the law.
Having the legalized sword of surveillance in hand, the intelligence agencies and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) openly started snooping on the internet and social media content. Along with the use of this undemocratic practice of monitoring speech, writers and journalists also faced increased intimidation. A military spokesman once boasted in an open press conference that the intelligence agencies were able look into the individual social media accounts, thus implying dire consequences – including many years in jail — for posting dissent online.
Another prominent feature of military intelligence agencies’ internet surveillance is their use of state-of-the-art tools to nab even those activists trying to hide their identity in one way or another. Reportedly, the government had contracted the developers of advanced internet surveillance tools in Canada to create a system allowing for any such coded traffic in the country to be conveniently deciphered.
Abductions, Arrests, and Harassment: A Continued Terror Campaign
Just as human rights organizations feared, the security agencies soon started their social media crackdown in the form of abductions, detentions, and imprisonments of undesired digital activists. The first main event of this crackdown was the near-simultaneous abduction of five bloggers known to criticize the military establishment from different cities of Pakistan in 2017.
The sudden abductions spread an environment of fear and terror in all the fellow activists. Family members panicked and rights organizations started protests. The detentions were eventually acknowledged and the activists were conveniently charged with blasphemy, a tactic often used to win public support for arrests. The activists denied the charges and were later acquitted.
Too terrorized to speak in the beginning, the abductees remained silent for some time. Later, however, some of them gave harrowing tales of being subjected to severe torture in the hands of the security agencies. Most of the abducted activists later left Pakistan and went into exile in European countries. The message from the abductors was loud and clear: Do not criticize us or you can be the next.
The terrorization spree went on. Later in 2017, 27 social media bloggers were arrested on charges of spreading propaganda against “state institutions,” a term widely used for the powerful Pakistan Army. Ironically in all of these cases, the process of normal judicial arrests was arrogantly disregarded. Instead, the target was just suddenly “kidnapped,” as the military agencies of the country place themselves above any human rights protections.
After many such events, it’s clear that any critic of Pakistan’s military can be picked up by these all-powerful agencies at any time and on any charges. The abductions can be short term, lasting just a few hours – as was the case for activists Gul Bukhari and Gulalai Ismail — or long term, as in the case of Samar Abbas who was released after about a year.
The sympathizers of rival opposition politicians like former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are also targeted along with any unwanted critics, like the famous case of Rizwan Razi, who was considered overly vocal on social media and was detained. After their release from abduction, activists have to either become more compliant and cautious or, like Gul Bukhari and Gulalai Ismail, go into exile if they want to continue their mission and activism.
In view of the recent activities of protesters from the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and the sit-in organized by Maulana Fazl ur Rehman’s party Jamiat Ulema e Islam (JUI), these groups’ social media activists have also been brutally suppressed. Their bloggers have often been abducted and there has been no judicial relief, despite large protests carried out in support of the abductees.
Other than the abductions, there are many unfortunate cases of killings too. Bilal Khan, a blogger from JUI and a vocal critic of the military’s policies, was killed in the capital city of Islamabad. The killers have not been held accountable. Overall, Pakistan has been rated as one of the most dangerous country for journalists, owing to such violent retribution and the vast unchecked powers enjoyed by the military intelligence agencies.
The only Pakistani bloggers who enjoy real free speech are those living in exile. But for them also, hounding by the intelligence agencies has not stopped. Recently, irked by her open criticism, Pakistani authorities contacted the British government in an attempt to silence Gul Bukhari in the U.K. A more fascist tactic is to persecute the relatives still living within the country and even detain them in order to silence a vocal critic sitting abroad, like Gulalai Ismail.
Another widely used tactic to silence dissent is raising and employing massive troll groups. Critics, including Reham Khan, the ex-wife of Imran Khan, often complain about abusive trolls persistently commenting with obscene and vile content on their social media posts or messages and thus harassing them online in order to silence them. Another tactic used by these cunning agencies is that of wrongfully complaining about unwanted accounts or groups and getting them closed down altogether. The award-winning journalist Taha Siddiqui, now exiled in France, has faced this and had to strive hard in order to get his account back.
Unfortunately, the story of Pakistan’s social media crackdown is not over. The diverse and persistent persecution of dissenting social media users continues. But more disturbing is the fact that Pakistan, even while stamping out dissent at all turns, continues to pose as a democracy in the world community. The time has arrived for the world to wake up, condemn these practices, apply international pressure, and force Pakistan’s hybrid civil-military regime to stop this continued crushing of normal free speech in the country.
Abdul Rehman is a writer and activist from Islamabad, Pakistan.