Social media activist: A bigger threat to Pakistan?

By Talal Raza

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Courtesy: https://www.dreamgrow.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/social-media-activism-1.jpg

According to World Press Freedom Index by Reporters with Borders, the press freedom rankings in Pakistan improved in 2017 and moved up the ladder from 147 in 2016 to 139 out of 180 countries.

Although, the media freedom may have improved, the recent onslaught against social media activists/journalists is a point of concern.  In August 2016, the government opted for cyber-crime law that digital rights activists believed provided enough room to the government to abuse it to punish political dissent. At that time, the government downplayed the rights concerns. Instead, Minister of IT Anusha Rehman even accused civil society of perpetuating foreign agenda.

Later in January 2017, the dangerous game began after five bloggers mysteriously went missing. Soon after their abduction, an organized campaign allegedly by pro-establishment social media groups began that accused them of committing blasphemy. The bloggers were released after three weeks.  Although, the debate at that point should have been why and who abducted them illegally; nobody seemed to be interested in digging deep into it.  Some meager voices tried to point out the involvement of some elements within state institutions about the arrest of the bloggers for their anti-establishment rant over online media rather than blasphemy. However, our political parties for the most part chose to remain silent.

Fast forward to May 2017, the Nawaz-military deal to settle Dawn leaks issue didn’t go down well with opposition parties who always tacitly hoped and believed that army would undertake an adventurous coup to dethrone Nawaz.  In the midst of this shock and confusion, when social media activists began to criticize and some even mocked the military establishment for displaying “weakness”, it infuriated the men in uniform. Soon the government swung into action and a sustained campaign of harassment of vocal social media critics began. Although no arrest was made, FIA summoned dozens of social media activists to inquire about their online activists and allegedly anti army rhetoric. In the aftermath of this, opposition parties especially PTI criticized the government and offered legal aid to the affected.

All this only points towards the dangerous trend within Pakistan where political dissent in online media is being rashly suppressed under different pretexts at times to protect religion and sometimes to safeguard the sanctity of the institutions. As some people rightly pointed out, at least the government should clarify the contours of state’s “sanctity” and also what would and would not come under “threat” to national security. Ironically, this clarity would never be brought as ambiguity conveniently allows government to punish anyone for either committing “blasphemy” or demeaning our “sacrosanct” institutions.

Furthermore, this repression is most likely to increase in the coming days. Even if government doesn’t end up punishing people for humiliating the so-called sanctity of institutions, the fear of getting arrested by the government has successfully scared off vocal critics to exercise self-censorship or face gallows.  The need of the hour is that social media activists shun this air of harassment and continue to hold government accountable for their misadventures. In the meanwhile, if the government wishes critics to believe that It was genuinely cracking down on people for “demeaning” institutions or perpetuating foreign agenda, they should make the process more transparent to allow us to assess to what extent the government action was justified.

Are we complacent in normalizing violence under the pretext of Blasphemy?

By Talal Raza

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Courtesy: “Justice for Mashal Khan” Facebook page

On April 13, 2017, a mob of students at Abdul Wali Khan University killed a 23-year old journalism student named Mashal Khan on charges of committing blasphemy. The mob also critically injured another fellow student for following Mashal. The news spread like a wildfire across the country. A flurry of debates started online as to what might have been the exact nature of “blasphemy” the student might have committed. Soon, a number of social media posts associated with the account of Mashal Khan began circulating over social media. Also, social media videos showing the mob killing and beating to death Mashal within the premises of the university also surfaced. The brutality with which his lifeless body was tortured sparked a flurry of debates as to how come a mob was able to be an accuser, jury and executioner at the same time within a span of a few minutes. As the investigations opened up, more teachers and students affiliated with Mashal Khan pointed out that it was actually his criticism of the university policies that didn’t go down well with certain quarters that they decided to make a case against him and incited students to violence. The initial investigations also found no evidence of blasphemy in the call record and social media account of Mashal and that the alleged blasphemous posts circulating on social media were found to be from fake accounts. As it became clear that allegations were false, major political parties, stakeholders and civil society came out in favor of Mashal Khan.  The Parliament of Pakistan passed a resolution condemning Mashal’s murder and called for amendments in the blasphemy law to deter those who took law into their own hands under the pretext of punishing wrongly accused “blasphemers”. Till the writing of this report, it has been learned that around 27 suspects have been arrested and a Joint Investigation team comprising of police officials are investigating the matter and present their findings in front of Supreme Court. [1]

While the calls for bringing to justice the murderers of Mashal were made by all circles, another incident took place in which a man was killed by three sisters for committing blasphemy 13 years ago. It came about that the man had committed blasphemy in 2004 and a case was also registered against him but he fled abroad. After he returned Pakistan a few days ago, he got a pre-arrest bail. Till now, it has been learned that the sisters have been arrested and a case against them have been registered.[2]

Intellectuals do not view these incidents in isolation. In fact, they believe that the aforementioned killings are an outcome of systematic campaign against the progressive voices that began in January when four bloggers were allegedly abducted by some mysterious “unknown” actors and were later accused of committing blasphemy among “patriotic” social media circles. Although, the bloggers were set free, the focus remained on whether they actually committed blasphemy or not. The calls for further investigating the case and find out who had picked them up illegally were silenced. The attention eventually focused on how social media was another platform for “blasphemers” to disrespect Islam. Afterwards, an Islamabad High Court Judge threatened to order closure of entire social media if the blasphemous content was not removed. It was followed by FIA’s announcement for opening investigation against the NGOs for supporting, promoting and funding blasphemous content over social media. Throughout this process, it seems as if the state has somewhat been complacent in romanticizing the idea that anybody can be accused of blasphemy, be picked up and tortured by anyone. Thus, it is no surprise that in aforementioned instances of blasphemy, the perpetrators also believed that they could kill their fellow student on charges of blasphemy without following upon the law and order.

In the midst of this, there have been calls from certain quarters including civil society and parliament for amending the blasphemy laws to prevent people from its misuse. However, I believe that such amendments, if at all undertaken, would least likely to prevent aforementioned acts as they had nothing to do with the implementation of blasphemy law in the first place. Rather, they were classic examples of mob vigilante where the mob became the prosecutor, jury and executioner irrespective of whatever was written in the law. In fact, in Mashal Khan’s case, videos showed that the mob meted out its version of justice in front of hapless police personnel.

To address this heads on, the short term measure involves giving exemplary punishments to those involved in taking law into their own hands irrespective of the fact whether a person committed any blasphemy or not. In the long run, we need a systematic transition from the violent ideals towards more humane and empathetic ideals. Our society is badly in need of heroes that could inspire them for their empathy not for gore and bloodshed.

[1] https://www.samaa.tv/pakistan/2017/04/mashal-khan-murdered-after-plot-and-plan/

[2] https://www.dawn.com/news/1328114

Countering Terrorism through National Narrative

By Aamina Khan

Note: The writer is an MPhil from National Defence University, Pakistan in Peace and Conflict Studies.

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The onset of 2017 has brought a fresh wave of terrorism in Pakistan. Until March 2017, around 35 terrorist attacks have been recorded in which approximately 200 people died including civilians and security personals. On February 17, 2017, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander comes under a deadliest blast in which around 100 people died. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group claimed responsibility for the blast via its Amaq propaganda website. This terrorist attack raised many eyebrows because presence of ISIS or its affiliated terrorist organizations in Pakistan is indeed a terrifying threat for already vulnerable state of Pakistan.

After this heinous blast, Pakistan army has announced to launch operation Radd ul fasad (elimination of discord) to deal with the terrorists. Previously, Pakistan Army has launched operation Zarb e Azb in 2014 in tribal areas and this operation is considered as a successful operation as it helped to bring peace in the country. Unfortunately the period of peace couldn’t stay longer and Pakistan once again comes under the dark clouds of terrorism which is not only a bad omen for long term peace and stability nonetheless, an indicator of the presence of certain loopholes which are required to be investigated.

In this scenario when a new threat that is ISIS is emergent in Pakistan, the need of counter narrative to deal with the ideology of terrorism is indispensible. It is quite evident now that this war against terrorism can’t be win only on battle grounds rather a comprehensive strategy is essential at all levels.  In order of defeat terrorism, ideology of terrorism must be defeated. For this purpose, everyone has to play its due part including government, clergy, media, academia and civil society. Only a united and concrete effort of counter narrative can defeat terrorism entirely.

National Action Plan (NAP) was indeed a mile stone in this regard but regrettably NAP could not be able to give as fruitful results as it was expected due to manifold reasons. Hence more efforts are required to build national narrative and the core aim of this counter narrative must be to de radicalize the society at all levels. The eradication of factors that foster extremist thought and militancy/ terrorism should receive priority.

Countering Terror in Cyberspace

By Talal Raza

Courtesy: https://www.infosecinstitute.com/company

As the Pakistani government braces itself for “Rad-ul-Fasad” military operation to capitalize on the gains of Zarb e Azb and plug the loopholes in it, it is also the time to expand the scope of its counter terror strategy to fight against terrorism in cyberspace.

The fight against terrorism in cyberspace is equally important as the one being fought in the physical world.  Although no figures are available about the scope of the terrorist threat in cyberspace, there have been many instances where modern technology was used by terrorists to recruit and raise funds. For instance, in 2015, Bushra Bibi went to Syria along with her children to join Daesh.[1] It has been learned that she was in touch with members of Daesh in Syria over Telegram. Similarly, in 2016, a Daesh cell was busted in Lahore in Intelligence based operation. It was reported that one of the female members of the ring was inspired from the lectures she received through social media. She was also reportedly in touch with a Daesh commander over Facebook and Telegram.[2]  Moreover, in 2015, members of proscribed organization in Karachi used Facebook to collect hides during Eid-ulAzha, an important source to run the operations. Additionally, there are hundreds of websites and Facebook pages that sympathize or are directly run by the members of proscribed organizations including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.[3]  Recently, it was reported that non-custom paid cars were being sold very openly using Facebook. These cars usually come from Afghanistan into Pakistan. There have been instances where the non-custom paid cars are used in terror activities. Thus, terrorists in Pakistan are not only using internet effectively to raise funds and share their propaganda material but also recruit and plan their activities.[4]

Meanwhile there is no doubt that Pakistan understands this emerging threat and has expressed its resolve to battle terror over the internet on numerous occasions as reflected in 2014 National Internal Security Policy and National Action Plan. It also incorporated terror related provisions in cybercrime bill and criminalized a number of actions including glorification of terror offence, cyber terrorism, hate speech et al. There have also been reports that terror social media accounts had been taken down. However, the strategy of blocking terror content in online spaces is a futile exercise in my opinion. It only wastes time and resources as the blocked pages reemerge on social media. Also, it also destroys important intelligence that could be processed to understand not only the mindset but also the next potential target of terrorists. In my opinion, counter terror operations in cyberspace should focus on building and popularizing the counter narrative against terrorists. Additionally, the special cyber units should be established under law enforcement and security agencies that are responsible for gathering and analyzing data retrieved from the websites and Facebook pages of terror organizations to see if the information could be used to identify the potential targets of terrorists or nab those who are running the websites.

Lastly, the fight against terror in cyberspace cannot be pursued in isolation given the nature of the medium that operates in a borderless terrain. In this regard, consultations should be held on transnational forums with other countries to discuss the best practices of counter terrorism that do not infringe upon digital rights.

Note: Talal Raza is a researcher. He recently pursued an independent research on “The Dilemma of Dealing with Terrorism in Cyberspace and Peoples’ Digital Rights: A Case Study of Pakistan”

References:

[1] http://spearheadresearch.org/index.php/warterror/islamic-republic-versus-islamic-state

[2] https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/166563-Over-a-dozen-Pakistanis-join-Daesh-in-Syria

[3] http://nation.com.pk/editors-picks/21-Sep-2015/banned-organisations-go-online-to-collect-hides

[4] http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2017/02/11/social-websites-become-hub-of-smuggled-cars/

 

 

 

Impact of Extremism on National Harmony in Pakistan

By Talal Raza

The radicalization of Pakistan commenced with the USSR invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As per the need of that time, it is a public knowledge now that with the help of foreign governments, many students from seminaries, adhering to Deobandi school of thought including Jamia Haqqani and Jamia Binoria, were trained by Pakistan and sent to Afghanistan to wage “Jihad” against the infidel USSR. After USSR’s departure from Afghanistan, the same radicals were allegedly sent to fight in Kashmir during the 1990 uprising against the Indian government. The space provided to these radical groups had far-reaching implications for Pakistani society and it affected every segment of society. A mindset was created that branded these militants as guardians of Islam who had earlier waged Jihad against USSR in Afghanistan and India in Kashmir (Rana, 2014).

In the post 9-11 scenario, keeping in view the changing geopolitical situation, Pakistan joined the US led war against terrorism and faced a difficult situation whereby the same groups that were happily tolerated by the state previously were banned, their leadership arrested or killed as a result of military operations. This didn’t go well with certain militants who began to target Pakistani security forces. The situation specially spiraled out of control after 2007 Red Mosque military operation. It gave a new impetus to militant activities and terrorist attacks became quite common in major urban centers of Pakistan (Rana, 2014)

Although our stance changed at the international level against the militant groups, it won’t be wrong to say that Pakistani society couldn’t completely detach itself from the extremist mindset it had allowed to strengthen between 1980- 2000.  In fact, the post 9-11 scenario was an eye opener for Pakistan as it made us realize how deeply extremism had penetrated in Pakistani society and exposed the confusions prevailing in all segments of society in diligently going after the extremist elements. This can be explained by following instances:

  • the on and off policy of military operations and peace agreements of governments with militant groups in tribal areas (Rana, 2014) is believed to only provide breathing space to militant groups to consolidate their position.
  • As Pakistan joined US-led coalition against the militants, the division persisted within the ranks of armed forces. A retired Colonel, on condition of anonymity noted that a number of army officers resigned from army because they didn’t want to “fight their own people” (personal communication, 20 April, 2015). Also, a number of high profile terrorist attacks like 2014 Naval dockyard attack (Mir, 2014) and 2011 Mehran base attack (Express Tribune, 2011) suggested that there were sympathizers within the armed forces’ ranks that facilitated these terrorist attacks.
  • Furthermore, though the political and security establishment unequivocally reiterated that they would no longer tolerate militant groups of every hue and color, it is still perceived that extremist groups continue to be tolerated. For instance, some quarters believe that extremist elements within Baluchistan were being allowed to operate with impunity to counter separatist Baluch groups (Flight from Balochistan, 2014). It is also believed that groups like Jamat –ud-Dawa still continue to operate freely (groups like JUD may not be fighting against Pakistan but its former members have joined anti Pakistan groups like TTP. In short, it is believed that such groups provide training camp to Anti-Pakistan groups)
  • The political leadership has remained divided for a long time with parties like PPP, ANP, MQM supporting a military action against Taliban whereas parties like JI, PML-N and PTI advocated for dialogue with Taliban. This has only complicated the efforts to build a counter-extremist narrative and justifying military operations in tribal areas. Even when PML-N came to power, they wanted to pursue dialogue with Taliban (Rana, 2014). It is said that it was military’s initiative to launch military operation in North Waziristan in June, 2014 in the aftermath of Karachi airport attack (A.Khan, personal communication, 15 July, 2014).
  • While some consensus could be seen among all stakeholders after the vicious 2014 APS Peshawar attack and it was followed by a comprehensive national action plan opted to deal with extremism, nothing concrete could be achieved so far (Wasim, 2015).

This shows how Pakistani state has so far struggled to counter extremism at the operational level. It has also exposed the divisions within our ranks with one group willing to accommodate militant groups whereas the other intends to employ hard power to uproot the menace of terrorism. It is coupled by state’s weak narrative against extremist mindset.  Rana (2014, April 06) pointed out the flaws and noted that the religious ideological narrative, that for long formed the basis of our sociopolitical structure, foreign policy and strategic doctrine, had been hijacked by militants. In the post 9-11 scenario they exploited this narrative to portray themselves as true custodians of Islam and projected Pakistan as diverging from it under external compulsions. All this contributed towards further confusing the public opinion which weren’t sure whether Pakistan was fighting against extremist elements or the “custodians of Islam”.

Fast forward to 2014 APS Peshawar attack, apparently there was a realization that a renewed approach was needed to tackle the issue of extremism through hard and soft power. Consequently, many promises were made in the name of “National Action Plan” in the need for building a counter narrative was emphasized. The seriousness and political maturity displayed by all stakeholders made one believe that perhaps this action plan will prevent our national harmony from further erosion at the hands of extremism. Fast forward to August 2016, ironically, the institution that had been tasked to complete this job called National Counter Terrorism Authority remains understaffed and under-resourced for mysterious reasons even today.  In fact, in the wake of August Quetta carnage that killed  70 people and claimed by TTP-Ahrar, we have now come to a point where military establishment has openly begun accusing the political establishment for not playing its due role in effective implementation of National Action Plan.

In the midst of this dismal situation, one wonders if there is any way forward. I asked this question from the people in position of authority to analysts, who deeply understood the security environment of Pakistan. One of the answers still echoes my mind: “Pakistan main siyasi jamatein makhiyon k chattey main hath dene nahee, 5 saal sakun se hakoomat karne aateen hain, (in Pakistan, political parties come into power to complete their terms peacefully; not to mess with the beehive of terrorism). In fact, more than any other “National Action Plan” or law, Pakistan needs visionary leadership with political acumen to uproot the menace of extremism.

 

 References:

Flight from Balochistan. (2014, October 14). Dawn News. Retrieved from http://www.dawn.com/

Mir, A. (2014, September 10). ‘Inside help’ in Karachi attack sets alarm bells ringing. The News. Retrieved from http://www.thenews.com.pk/

Naval base raid: Finally, report admits inside job in Mehran attack. (2011, June 30). The Express Tribune. Retrieved from http://tribune.com.pk/

Rana, M.A. (2014, April 06). The state’s lost narrative. Dawn News. Retrieved from http://www.dawn.com/

Rana, M.A. (2014). Tribal insurgency in FATA: Evolution and prospects. In M. W. Yusuf (Ed.), Insurgency and counterinsurgency in South Asia (pp.107-129). New Delhi: Foundation Books

Wasim, A. (2015, April 21). Govt accused of going slow on National Action Plan. Dawn News. Retrieved from http://www.dawn.com/

 

 

 

Pakistan’s Cyber-crime Bill-A Non issue?

By Talal Raza

In August 2016, Pakistani parliament passed a cyber crime bill. The government regards this bill as a comprehensive legal framework to deal with new types of offences such cyber harassment, cyber stalking, electronic fraud and cyber terrorism. However, rights activists have raised concerns about the bill and believe that the way it is drafted, it could result in curbing civil liberties. 
There is no doubt that a cyber crime bill was essential as there was an exponential rise in cyber crimes in Pakistan in recent times. Most of the cases are related to online women harassment. However, in the absence of legal framework it was difficult for law enforcement agencies to arrest the abusers of online spaces. Interestingly, Pakistan also has a history of laws being abused to settle personal scores. Recently, I was told that in the past, laws against terrorism had been used against political opponents to settle personal scores. It is within this context that rights activists fear that cyber crime bill might be yet another law that may be used to block content and punish dissent in online spaces.
Although this debate has started in Pakistan just now, it is be noted that many of my journalist friends thought that the issues of privacy and surveillance was a non-issue for them and they had “bigger and better issues” to talk about such as poverty, terrorism and poor governance. However, this also reflects that civil society also needs to go out and make internet privacy issue a public matter. Without awareness, the battle against internet censorship and surveillance cannot be won by the rights activists alone. “

War hysteria and Kashmir

By Talal Raza

As the world celebrated the World Peace day on September 21 this year,  the states of Pakistan and India seem to have taken a huge leap backwards on the bilateral engagement. It reminds me of the year 2000-2001 when the two countries were at loggerheads in the aftermath of Indian Parliament attack. Leaders of both countries were pretending to be tough. Even forces were deployed along the line of control and the rhetoric of “war preparedness” was in the air. It seemed as if war was inevitable and one bullet from either side would trigger a large scale armed conflict. Thankfully, nothing of this sort happened and both countries were back on utilizing diplomatic channels.

Fast forward to 2016, in the after math of Uri attack in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir that killed 18 Indian soldiers, we are back to those days of blame game, claims of giving the enemy a “befitting reply” and nation’s “war preparedness”.  Just like in the past, the vitriolic speeches from both sides coupled with pumped up nationalism is at worst, blinding the people on both sides about the possible consequences that they may have to bear as a result of an armed clash between the two nuclear states of South Asia.

The fact is, Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir and neither of them had been able to strengthen either party’s clutches on Kashmir. In fact, these violent encounters have only contributed towards making the Kashmir issue more complicated. Going towards another armed escalation is least likely to help resolve Kashmir dispute and cross border terrorism.

Today, we have reached a choking point where India conveniently brings up the issue of cross border terrorism in response to Pakistan’s mundane “fillers” of reminding India about respecting UN resolutions on Kashmir. Deep down, these rigid positions are not going to help Kashmiris.

Although, it would be beyond the scope of this article to propose any tangible strategies to resolve Kashmir issue, the solution can be found in the Modi’s August speech that talked about following Vajpayee’s path on Kashmir.  However, Mr.Modi apparently seems to forget that Vajpayee’s path to Kashmir was of engagement with Pakistan and Kashmiris through dialogue rather than war. In fact, the high handed use of force against Kashmiris coupled with fiery rhetoric against Pakistan has only helped in “internationalizing” the Kashmir, typically a diplomatic goal that Pakistan has been trying to achieve. While India continues to make tall claims of isolating Pakistan in the comity of nations, the fact is that it stands completely isolated over the Kashmir issue in international community. The sanity warrants that Prime Minister Modi shift his focus from war-mongering and act upon the path of Vajpayee by taking Kashmir as a political issue.