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Crackdown on Online Criticism Chills Pakistani Social Media

28 July 2017 No Comment

By MEHREEN ZAHRA-MALIK in The New York Times online, July 27, 2017
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Dr. Faisal Ranjha was examining a patient in the crowded critical-care unit of his hospital in northeastern Pakistan when a federal officer abruptly walked in, seized his cellphone and told him he was under arrest.

Officers took him home to scoop up his laptop and the tablet computer on which his 8-year-old son was playing games, then drove the doctor more than 150 miles to the Federal Investigation Agency headquarters in Islamabad. Only then was he told why: He stood accused of leading an anti-army information campaign on Twitter.

Dr. Ranjha is one of dozens of people arrested and investigated since January for their social media use, under the sweeping cybercrimes law passed by Parliament last year.

The law, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, was widely promoted as a tool to punish internet activity by banned militant groups and curb online sexual harassment. But in recent months it has increasingly been used to crack down on those who have gone online with criticism of the government and, particularly, the military.

Civil rights advocates, as well as people directly targeted by the authorities, have described actions that included harassment, intimidation, and detention without access to lawyers or family members. In a few cases, physical abuse of those in custody was reported.

More subtly, the campaign has also injected a distinct chill into a Pakistani social media scene long known for boldness and rollicking satire.

“Many journalists and activists — especially young people who ask important questions or say critical things on Facebook or Twitter — they are going quiet, thinking they can be arrested, or worse,” said Shahzad Ahmad, a director of Bytes for All Pakistan. The group campaigns for internet freedom and has gone to court several times seeking to lift government restrictions in Pakistan.

The internet crackdown is happening while the country’s military establishment has been exerting its influence more broadly over media outlets, the courts and politics, even as it has enjoyed widespread popularity with the public. Now, the military seems to feel increasingly empowered to root out even small-scale criticism.

Dr. Ranjha insisted that he had never crossed any explicit line with his posts.

“I’ve never been part of any anti-army campaign,” Dr. Ranjha said in a telephone interview from his home in the Gujranwala District of Punjab Province. “But yes, my tweets definitely give the impression that democracy in Pakistan is very weak because it is not being allowed to grow stronger, to flourish.”

He was freed on May 22 after two days of questioning. But his devices have not been returned, and the Federal Investigation Agency took control of his Twitter account to make it inaccessible.

Under the electronic crimes law, investigations are carried out by the Federal Investigation Agency. The agency says it does not monitor, but only follows up on complaints from the Interior Ministry or, more often, from the military and its feared spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or I.S.I.

“Monitoring is not our mandate; we get complaints from the interior minister and mostly our intelligence agencies about certain social media profiles, and then we investigate,” said Muhammad Shafique, the head of the F.I.A.’s cybercrime section. “There is coordination between civilian and military agencies; we work together.”

The I.S.I. has long been accused of using intimidation, torture and extrajudicial killings against suspected militants, dissidents and journalists. Now it is also able to move indirectly, through the new cybercrimes law and the investigation agency, against dissent, according to officials and rights advocates.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said all questions about continuing investigations under the cybercrime law should be directed to the Federal Investigation Agency. An I.S.I. spokesman did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

In May alone, the F.I.A. began investigating more than 200 social media accounts and summoned at least 21 users for questioning about “anti-military posts.” In June, Zafarullah Achakzai from the southern city of Quetta became one of the first reporters to be charged under the electronic crimes law.

The number of investigations, and sometimes arrests and fines, began increasing soon after the law’s passage in August 2016. But it was a series of disappearances in January outside the normal workings of the law that greatly increased public fears and outrage over what was increasingly perceived as an unjust crackdown on public expression.

That month, at least five activists known for internet posts critical of the military suddenly disappeared. People flocked online to protest and demand the activists’ return. An editorial in the newspaper Dawn called the disappearances “a dark new chapter in the state’s murky, illegal war against civil society.”

Four of the five have since returned home. Three promptly left Pakistan. But Samar Abbas, the president of Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan, a rights group based in Karachi, is still missing.

No state agency has accepted responsibility for holding the five men. The army’s media office and the Interior Ministry denied involvement in separate news conferences in January.

Three of these activists were administrators of a popular satirical Facebook page called Mochi. The cover photo for the page reads: “We respect Armed Forces of Pakistan as much as they respect the constitution of Pakistan.”

One Mochi administrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for his family, said he was subjected to torture during his three weeks in I.S.I. custody. The wife of another activist who disappeared in January said that since his return, he had remained so traumatized that he shied away from even his children, and remained mostly shut in his room. She requested that specifics about his case not be published to protect her family’s identity.

Another activist who disappeared was Salman Haider, a well-known poet now in exile in the United States. Mr. Haider declined to comment for this article, but shared a harrowing poem about his fear of death while in confinement, and such degradations as being made to use the same bottle to urinate in and drink water from.

Rights activists say that the episode gave authorities renewed confidence to go after dissenters ever more openly, culminating in a public announcement in May by the interior minister that criticism of the security forces was forbidden and would be punished.

“Officials now realized what an excellent tool they had in their hands to control political expression,” said Mr. Ahmad of Bytes for All Pakistan.

Mr. Shafique, the head of the Federal Investigation Agency’s cybercrime section, would not comment on specific cases. But he made it clear that posts disrespectful of Pakistan’s armed forces would not be tolerated.

“Freedom of expression within limits is a right, but using abusive language against sacred institutions — that makes a crime,” he said.

He added that under the cybercrime law, no one could be arrested without “solid technical evidence” retrieved from electronic devices. He called the existing law “very weak” because it did not even allow the F.I.A. to register a case against an accused person without a court order.

“In our country, social media is more free than it is anywhere else in the world,” Mr. Shafique said. “Everyone can say what they want. Who is scared?”

But the crackdown has definitely raised fears, with many saying they self-censored their posts rather than risk arrest or any threat against their families.

And that, Dr. Ranjha said, was almost surely the point. “Picking me up was a way to send a message to others to straighten up,” he said. “When you are taken away — and you don’t know why, or when you’ll come back — it changes everything.”https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/world/asia/pakistan-social-media-online-criticism.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fasia

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