On February 11, the federal cabinet of Pakistans under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan approved new laws to regulate social media. These rules, dubbed the Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, require international social media companies to immediately remove any material deemed undesirable by the authorities and to provide authorities with data on citizens' social media accounts. Pakistani whenever asked. . Businesses will also be required to establish their data centers in Pakistan and to open offices with focal points in Islamabad.
Although digital surveillance by military intelligence agencies is not new to Pakistan, the new laws have attracted strong criticism from activists and human rights organizations. Pakistan Human Rights Commission said rules gag the country's social media. According to Media Matters for Democracy, the laws are dictatorial. Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan said these rules would give the authorities unwavering power to stifle social media. The international organization Committee to Protect Journalists has demanded a back of these new laws.
On the other hand, social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter – who have also been targeted by these new laws by being forced to start local data centers and comply with any requested content manipulation – are raised against these undemocratic practices. Reportedly, they jointly written the Prime Minister to condemn the proposed laws and to 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 fairly authoritarian. This can easily be illustrated by the ranking assigned 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 in the world on this index; Pakistan is one of 10 worst countries out of 65 interviewed in the Freedom on the Net 2019 report.
According to NDTV, the report found that more than 800,000 websites hosting political, religious and social content remain blocked in the country, while the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority continues to restrict content in a non-transparent and arbitrary manner. the report also observed that government and military agencies often pressure users and social media companies to remove unwanted content and thereby force writers to practice self-censorship. He also stressed that authorities frequently disrupt telecommunications services during ongoing protests, national elections and religious holidays.
The current government of Imran Khan, who was brought into power by controversy elections in 2018 and is widely accused of working on the military last name, clearly worsened the situation. Human Rights Watch in its recent report observed that contrary to its claims of social justice, the Khans administration has increased restrictions on the media since taking office. In accordance with the complaints of prominent journalists In the international press, media freedom has declined and the country is going through one of its darkest periods in decades.
The new social media rules are not the first time that Internet traffic monitoring has been legally implemented in Pakistan. The Electronic Crime Prevention Law (PECA), known as the Crime Law success August 11, 2016, after a fairly limited and hasty legislative process. The act, under the pretext of stopping the profanity, authorized security agencies to monitor Internet content, restrict unwanted comments and prosecute those who published the material.
Fearing its implications, the Pakistan Human Rights Commission has warned even before the enactment of cybercrime laws, they will have immense ramifications for freedom of expression, human rights and democracy in the country. The committee also questioned the harsh penalties for otherwise common internet use practices, opening the door to abuse of the law or selective use. Subsequent events in the country have only confirmed the suspicions that the commission had raised about the law.
Having the legalized sword of surveillance in hand, intelligence agencies and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) openly start spy on the Internet and social media content. Along with the use of this undemocratic speech surveillance practice, writers and journalists have also faced increased intimidation. A military spokesperson once boasted at an open press conference that intelligence agencies were able to examine individual social media accounts, with dire consequences, including many years in prison – for publishing dissenting opinions online.
Another important feature of the internet surveillance of military intelligence agencies is their use of advanced tools to catch even militants who try to hide their identity in one way or another. Sources said the government had contracted developers of advanced Internet surveillance tools in Canada to create a system for easily decrypting any such coded traffic in the country.
Kidnappings, arrests and harassment: a campaign of terror continues
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Just as human rights organizations feared, security agencies quickly began their crackdown on social media in the form of kidnappings, detentions and imprisonment of prisoners. unwanted digital activists. The first major event in this repression was almost simultaneous removal of five bloggers known to criticize the military establishment from different cities of Pakistan in 2017.
The sudden kidnappings spread a climate of fear and terror to all activists. Family members panicked and human rights organizations began to demonstrate. The detentions were eventually recognized and the activists were conveniently accused of blasphemy, a tactic often used to gain public support for the arrests. Activists denied the charges and were later acquitted.
Too terrorized to speak at first, the kidnapped remained silent for a while. Later, however, some of them told poignant stories torture in the hands of security agencies. Most kidnapped activists then left Pakistan and surrendered exile in European countries. the message kidnappers was loud and clear: don't criticize us or you can be next.
The wave of terror continued. Later in 2017, 27 Social media bloggers have been arrested for spreading propaganda against public institutions, a term widely used for the powerful Pakistani army. Ironically, in all of these cases, the process of normal judicial arrests was arrogantly disregarded. Instead, the target was suddenly kidnapped, as the country's military agencies place themselves above all protection of human rights.
After many such events, it is clear that any criticism of the Pakistani military can be taken care of by these all-powerful agencies at any time and on any charges. Kidnappings can be short-lived, lasting only 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.
Supporters of rival opposition politicians, such as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are also targeted, as are all unwanted critics, such as the famous case Rizwan Razi, who was considered too vocal on social networks and detained. After their release from the kidnapping, activists must either become more compliant and cautious, or, like Gul Bukhari and Gulalai Ismail, exile if they want to continue their mission and activism.
Given the recent activities of protesters from the Pashtun Tahaffuz movement (PTM) and the sit-in organized by the Maulana Fazl ur Rehmans Jamiat Ulema e Islam (JUI) party, these groups of social media activists have also been brutally suppressed. Their bloggers have often been removed and there has been no judicial relief, despite large protests carried out on behalf of the abductees.
Besides kidnappings, there are also many cases of unfortunate murders. Bilal Khan, a blogger JUI and critical critic of military policy, was killed in the capital Islamabad. The killers were not held responsible. Overall, Pakistan has been ranked among the most dangerous country for journalists, because of these violent reprisals and the vast uncontrolled powers enjoyed by military intelligence agencies.
The only Pakistani bloggers who enjoy real freedom of expression are those who live in exile. But for them too, the pursuit of intelligence agencies has not stopped. Recently upset by open criticism, Pakistani authorities contacted the British government to try to silence Gul Bukhari in the UK A more fascist tactic is to persecute loved ones still live in the country and even detain them to silence a voice critic seated abroad, like Gulalai Ismail.
Another tactic widely used to silence dissent is to raise and employ massive groups of trolls. Critics, including Reham Khan, Imran Khan's ex-wife, often complain of violence trolls constantly commenting with obscene and despicable content on their messages or messages on social networks and thus harassing them online in order to silence them. Another tactic used by these clever agencies is to wrongly complain about unwanted accounts or groups and shut them down completely. Award-winning journalist Taha Siddiqui, now exiled to France, said face that and had to go to great lengths to recover his account.
And after that?
Unfortunately, the story of the crackdown on Pakistani social media is not over. The diverse and persistent persecution of dissident social media users continues. But the most troubling is the fact that Pakistan, even if it eradicates dissent at all levels, continues to present itself as a democracy in the world community. The time has come for the world to wake up, to condemn these practices, to apply international pressure and to force the hybrid civil-military regime of Pakistan to put an end to this continuous crushing of normal freedom of expression. in the country.
Abdul Rehman is a writer and activist from Islamabad, Pakistan.
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