The Counter Terrorism Department of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been summoning political activists since May 17. The Interior minister has admitted to surveillance of Pakistani social media community, on the instructions of the Prime Minister and insists that he wants to keep doing that. In a condescending presser the day before, he added that the government wants to save the future generations from the garbage on social media.
The FIA also issued a statement that organised anti-army campaign is the reason behind these rather oppressive steps. High-handedness is masquerading as policy and Pakistan Electronic Crime Act is enabling the authorities to surveil, intimidate and censor citizens. More worrying and absurd is the use of the word organised by the state. If it weren’t so malicious in intent, using the term organised in this context would have been comical. The adjective of organised for smear campaigns or hate attacks on social media, has been accurately used by the human rights defenders, activists and progressive journalists who have been on the receiving end of the state-supporting-blasphemy law-loving vicious trolls — a hostile online situation set into motion years back.
Now the government to please the country’s most powerful institution has appropriated the term organised. For the FIA to think that the military is so fragile that a few tweets of mostly political activists who are traditional supporters of the armed forces and believe in their logic on India, the Line of Control, their relationship with China etc, are organising campaigns to hurt their interests, is rather absurd. Let’s not even mention the bloggers whom no one bothered to merely summon, who went missing due to their alleged social media activities in January. When released, they had to or were advised to leave the country. Who is going to be accountable for such treatment to Pakistani citizens?
There is much one finds claustrophobic with this clampdown on our freedoms and reducing the space for dissent. Frankly, who wants to be put in the same category as a misogynist PTI troll? A shrewd move by PML-N was putting a journalist like Taha Siddiqi, who, for years, has held the state accountable on public interest matters through his reporting with PTI’s Salar Yousafzai, a social media user with a twitter history of deliberate mocking of progressives for their politics. This is a tyrannical tactic — make circumstances so hostile that even the most lukewarm tweet critiquing the government or the military comes across as a radical act of courage.
Earlier, Twitter, Facebook and other online forums were infiltrated by the state proxies with the plan that a smallish aggressive online brigade would be enough to post against India, the Baloch separatists, TTP and continue to tweet with severe meanness at the female opinion writers, or the so called dollar-khor NGO wallahs, lifafa journalists and human rights defenders. Things came to such a head that we saw hashtags that celebrated death of a news network on the wrong side of establishment. Worse, sedition charges against progressives were leveled, they were also accused of blasphemy and many journalists and activists were threatened with death and in case of women, rape.
Earlier online forums were infiltrated by proxies with the plan that a smallish aggressive online brigade would be enough to post against India, the Baloch separatists, TTP and continue to tweet with severe meanness at the female opinion writers, or the so called dollar-khor NGO wallahs, lifafa journalists and human rights defenders
The more obvious it became to those who must not be named that Pakistanis can see through the charade of some state policies on critical issues, and can communicate their criticism wittily with relative freedom of social networks, the tougher it got for people to be vocal about issues.
Access to internet creates spaces that encourage equality. A tweet by ISPR can be conveniently dissected in 140 characters by anyone with a twitter handle. God forbid, if an ordinary Pakistani gets some space enabling him/her to ask for pluralism. Another misnomer is that technology is a thing removed from us, that a shutdown of tech would not affect people intimately. But the barriers being erected online are physical barriers, with consequences that affect us psychologically and add to the helplessness of thinking citizens. When we stop typing our views or deactivate accounts — we shut up.
Despite Ch Nisar’s declaration that blasphemous posts have been reduced due to the other crackdown he has been obsessed with since the beginning of this year, the religious right is feeling left out. In fact, it is an indicator of the severity of this new Internet clampdown. In their Facebook communications, there is a new conversation among religious extremists around arrests over anti-Army campaigns; and they are complaining about lack of government seriousness on the online insults to Islam. They want the government to do more for the blasphemy law.
What can be crazier than that? For now, we have no plans to shut up.
The writer is an independent journalist and researcher, working on religious persecution, gender, human rights and online extremist expression. She tweets @Rabail26