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Mind your hashtags

Arbitrary and whimsical, the FIA’s drive to curb social media is hurting democracy and peoples’ right to freedom of expression

Mind your hashtags

The crackdown against social media users is further blighting Pakistan’s freedom of expression. The Counter Terrorism Department for the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is muscling down on social media users, especially those critiquing the powerful military when, on the other hand, hundreds of web pages spreading extremism are allowed to flourish.

The official crackdown was conducted on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s orders, said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in a press conference last week. He also confusingly said, “there is no restriction on social media but there will be lines drawn and social media will be monitored”.

However, all it has achieved so far is unrest among political activists who regularly use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It has also invited outrage from rights’ activists, citing the onslaught as a restriction on freedom of expression.

Last week the FIA, the country’s top authority that counters cyber-crimes, questioned more than four dozen social media users for allegedly criticising the military and judiciary. Many of them are still in the custody of investigators.

The context is that at the start of this year, about half a dozen bloggers and activists mysteriously disappeared within 24 hours. Weeks later, all of them returned home but there is still no clarity about who picked them up, why and what happened under captivity.

Many critics pointed fingers at the Inter-Services Intelligence, the military’s spy agency; meanwhile pro-army media houses reported that the disappeared activists and bloggers were accused of spreading blasphemous content online. The bloggers later denied the accusations and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan also exonerated them.

The political situation in the country grew more complicated after an alleged deal between the civilian government and the army to settle a row over a security issue went sour.

Now the federal government has ordered a large-scale crackdown against those allegedly posting anti-state content online, and maligning state’s institutions.

Although political activists are being checked on social media, extremists spreading their ideology through cyber space are hardly confronted. The lethal Islamic State, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JUA) and Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) are all running their recruitment campaigns on social media.

“Some two dozen people suspected of publishing hate materials are in our custody and it also includes eight activists of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N),” says a senior FIA official, continuing, “Social media activists who created fake online [Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) accounts just to malign Pakistan, its institutions or to take revenge on other people or settle their political scores are to face tougher action through FIA prosecutors”.

Some ten million people are currently using social media sites in the country, he further adds.

The News on Sunday spoke to six FIA officials and all wished to remain anonymous.

Kamran Rehmat, a former newspaper editor and political analyst, thinks the whip is just an appeasement gimmick, but one that does Nawaz Sharif’s government no credit. “Sharif 3.0 is obviously desperate to complete his term any which way, even if that means one more compromise in its collection of embarrassments. This appears to be a calibrated move to appease the security establishment, which is smarting from the apparent loss of face in the tweet saga”.

“But for an elected government to hurt democracy like this is a betrayal of public trust and its bounden duty to protect all freedoms enshrined in the constitution. Driven by self-preservation, these actions are also hurting Pakistan’s image globally,” Rehmat adds.

The FIA investigators questioned eight workers of the PTI and PML-N, who were accused of posting hate material against the military. Four people were questioned by investigators who allegedly posted blasphemous content on social media. The investigation team also quizzed three offenders accused of maligning Chief Justice of Pakistan and Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of Islamabad High Court.

Chaudhry Nisar: “There is no restriction on social media but lines will be drawn and social media monitored.”

Chaudhry Nisar: “There is no restriction on social media but lines will be drawn and social media monitored.”

The FIA Islamabad office, with help from Pakistan Telecommunication Association (PTA) requested social networking sites to preserve data of approximately 1,000 social media accounts in past six months. Offenders who create fake profiles on Facebook and Twitter may face terrorism, anti-state and harassment charges. “The PTA also requested social media sites either to restrict or block around 400 accounts of Facebook and Twitter with around a dozen websites which were spreading unwanted content against the state,” adds FIA officials.

The FIA teams have received more than 11,053 complaints in the past 15 months, official data exclusively obtained by TNS revealed. Around 20,180 complaints were sent to FIA regional offices by citizens between 2011 and April 2017. Over 4,501 inquiries were ordered by FIA investigators regarding 20,180 complaints, and around 1,200 inquiries were filed in past 16 months. The data further revealed that some 879 cases were filed by the investigators against the offenders and that some 240 social media activists faced cases in the past 15 months.

Although political activists are being checked on social media, extremists spreading their ideology through cyber space are hardly confronted. The lethal Islamic State, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JUA) and Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) are all running their recruitment campaigns on social media. Noreen Leghari, a medical student, was the Islamic State’s latest catch which has previously allured hundreds of activists to join hands with their extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

The government did not block such sites, in fact activists of these banned outfits enjoy free space on these same social media sites. A key part of National Action Plan stated that the glorification of banned outfits and terrorists would be curbed but terrorists like Ehsanullah Ehsan who once served the TTP and then the JUA were given airtime by mainstream media. The PTA, Pemra and FIA have the capacity to block such sites but no serious action was taken against these hatemongers.

The Interior Minister remains in denial, as usual. His only focus is the social media users who are allegedly anti-army. “We’ll not tolerate those degrading our institutions on social media,” he told the media.

The crackdown on social media activists, critics say, was creating a climate of fear and promoting self-censorship among other social media users. This is contrary to democratic principles. “Free speech is beauty of democracy as both freedom of expression and democracy go hand-in-hand. The government is curbing peoples’ rights by targeting critics. It should start crackdown against extremists sites rather than threaten critics,” says PTI leader Jahangir Tareen.

He adds that his party’s activists are being picked up by FIA because the PML-N government wants to suppress their critics.

The FIA teams were receiving some 40 to 50 complaints daily and it has become difficult for investigators to address them quickly. There are talks about the activation of a new cyber terrorism wing under the new cyber crime laws.

“The agency faces a capacity problem since it cannot handle the rising number of complaints on a daily basis,” says Muhammad Amlish, Director General FIA. Although he did not discuss the current issue in detail, he did say, “We also want some amendments in newly passed laws such as the Protection of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, in order to nip cyber crimes.”

Around 210 cases have been filed under PECA 2016 in different courts but till now only one case was decided by a local court last week. The local court awarded an 18-month imprisonment with fine of Rs200,000 to a man who created a fake Facebook account of a girl in Lahore. “The nature of cyber crime cases range from revenge pornography to blasphemous content,” says the FIA investigator.

But even as the government is catching a few real criminals, it is rapidly earning criticism for its crackdown. Nighat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation, an advocacy NGO focusing on digital governance, says: “The crackdown on social media activists is creating a climate of fear and promoting self-censorship among other social media users which is a contrary to the principles of democracy. Social media is a space for people, exercising their freedom of expression and access to opinion by sharing news, being critical to state actions etc.”

She further adds that the state needs to explain how they define criticism, defamation, hate speech and what laws they are using to crack down on social media activists.

Senator Farhatullah Babar says the government should not be allowed to wield power arbitrarily or whimsically. “The freedom of expression is increasingly attacked by both state and non-state actors on various pretexts. Silencing critics through FIA’s harassment must be stopped. This dangerous trend must be resisted by supporters of freedom of expression.”

Zahid Gishkori

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