Last week, reportedly a dozen NGOs were ordered to shut down some of their operations. The Punjab Home Department alleged that the NGOs were involved in objectionable and anti-state activities. The majority of these organisations were based in Punjab and were involved with women and human rights.
Out of these, two NGOs — South Asia Partnership-Pakistan (SAP-PK) and Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE) — fought back and challenged the government to prove their allegations in court. A weekend after they were closed, the Lahore High Court allowed them to resume their functions. Moreover, the court restrained authorities from harassing the NGO or its staffers.
But it is unlikely the story will end here.
This may be because the problem doesn’t lie within the NGOs but within the fact that the government is focused on fixing their international image rather than their record. Asma Jahangir, human rights lawyer and social activist, says that the NGOs are being harassed and shut down because they are providing information to the public and the “government doesn’t want anyone to have information, they don’t want people outside or inside Pakistan to know the status of IDPs, or how many people are being affected by CPEC, they are sensitive to criticism and want to silence it.”
The director of SAP-PK, Mohammad Tahseen, whose organisation received government orders to shut down four out of their 11 offices (all of which were in South Punjab), says that the war against NGOs has been ongoing since at least 2015. “At first, the government informed local non-profits that before arranging any event, be it a book launch or a conference on peace, a No Objection Certificate (NOC) would have to be obtained from the DCO in their area. This was cumbersome but still bearable,” says Tahseen. “Over time, the rules became more stringent. They created committees in each district that would have to sit down and discuss whether or not our NOCs would be given out, and these committees were neither time-bound, nor accountable to anyone.”
The question these restrictions raised was, if an NGO is registered, why does it need permission from the DCO to carry out their activities? It appears that not only does the government want to restrict the work of NGO, it also wants to closely monitor the work they are carrying out.
Nighat Dad, founder and leader of Digital Rights Foundation, an advocacy NGO that focuses on human rights, democratic process and digital governance, says that surveillance and spying on NGOs is being carried out physically, as well as online. She says that the attempted shut down of NGOs is part of a larger coordinated attack not only on these organisations but also on those that run them.
“What’s most troubling is that the law bears no value to these people,” says Tahseen on the subject of how they need permission even to hold a seminar despite being registered.
Read also: Editorial
In the recent forcible shut down of SAP-PK and WISE, it is a similar lack of due process that was on display. Bushra Khaliq, the executive director of WISE, says that if the government really did suspect her NGO of “carrying out activities that were against the country’s strategic security interests” in Bahawalpur, a legal investigation should have been carried out in compliance with the Societies Registration Act of 1860. The state should have given the NGOs fair warning and a chance to respond to the allegations against them, instead of a sudden shut down.
There has been much furore over the assumption that the shutting down of these NGOs is linked with the recent disappearances of social media activists from Lahore and Islamabad. But cases of government harassing NGOs can be found as far back as almost a decade ago.
In January 2008, the Punjab government issued a notification to the National Community for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a human rights NGO, stating that if they didn’t stop distributing a report titled, “Pakistan: The land of Religious Apartheid and Jackboot Justice: A report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” they would be fined and imprisoned. When the officers of NCJP were summoned to appear before the Home Department, they went hoping to inform the department that the NCJP was in no way involved in the publication or the distribution of the report, which was published by a human rights organisation in New Delhi. However, it was found that the Additional Secretary on Internal Security was unavailable, and the harassment continued for a while.
However, links can be drawn between enforced disappearances and the forcible shut down of these advocacies and service providers: the idea that the government wants to clamp down on anyone who raises a voice against oppression or injustice. “The policy of the ruling elite is that if anyone speaks too loud, shut them down,” says Tahseen. “They don’t want people or organisations making noise about anyone’s rights, they are not interested in independent or autonomous voices.”
Bushra’s hypothesis of why they attempted to shut down WISE is similar. Recently, her organisation was involved in the effective implementation of “Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010” and while fighting her case in court herself, she said it was inconceivable that training women to protect themselves against sexual harassment would be in any way detrimental to national security, as alleged by the government. The reason they want to shut down the organisation, she suspects, is because the government does not want to be held accountable on any account by the civil society.
“Take the case of the missing bloggers, for instance. It’s other activists and NGOs that are making noise about their safe return. The government doesn’t want to be held accountable for the disappearances, or anything else either,” says Bushra.
Bushra’s story is very similar to that of Dr Rubina Bhatti, the founder and CEO of Sargodha-based Taangh Wasaib Organisation (TWO). In June 2016, the Punjab Home Department sent a letter to seven government agencies, stating that TWO is involved in “dubious” activities and recommending banning the NGO from operating. Reflecting the case of WISE, it was not the NGO itself which was informed that they are under scrutiny. News reports state that the next month, two police officers visited TWO’s Sargodha office to “collect information”.
In Bushra’s case, this collection of information was a traumatic process. “Firstly, they treated me as if I was a criminal, not someone who is working for human rights. And secondly, their questions weren’t limited to the working of my organisation, instead they were asking me personal questions about my husband and children,” says Bushra. “It was clear that they were trying to intimidate and harass me.”
Finally, on September 1, 2016, the police arrived at TWO’s office and announced that since the NGO was “preaching Christianity and defaming the country” the office must be shut down immediately. When the staff resisted they were detained and the office forcibly locked.
Frontline Defenders, a Dublin-based organisation that aims to protect human rights defenders at risk, such as Bhatti, stated that it believes TWO was targeted “solely due to its peaceful and legitimate work to address issues of violence against women, religious intolerance, and discriminatory laws in Punjab, Pakistan.” That is, the organisation was targeted merely for doing its work.
Bhatti has been “advised” against speaking to the media. Unlike SAP-PK and WISE, TWO’s offices have remained shut since last September, and their website is also inaccessible.
Tahseen says that the Lahore High Court’s positive decision in favour of NGOs may encourage other forcibly shut and harassed organisations from across the country to rise up and demand justice. “Only time will tell,” he says.