‘Is Pakistan Following China’s Lead in Controlling Social Media’

One week ago, New Pakistan wrote about the repressive new social media regulations that were recently implemented by the government of Pakistan. The Pakistani deep state is so paranoid about any difference in opinion that it wants to ensure there is no difference of opinion either in mainstream or social media. It is also becoming increasingly clear that not only is Pakistan dependent economically and militarily on All Weather Ally China but that Naya Pakistan seeks to follow Big Brother China even in the realm of political and media freedoms.

According to lawyer, human rights advocate and columnist, Yasser Latif Hamdani, “the newly unveiled “Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020” (CP) slipped in secretly in January but notified on February 12 are just another case in point. This comes a century after the British imposed the notorious Press Act that had tried to but ultimately failed to control free press in the subcontinent. Yet the more things change the more they remain the same, principally the hubris of a government that seeks maximum control.”

Further, as Hamdani notes, “The objective, therefore, behind it is to intimidate the ordinary citizen and exercise a degree of control that borders on paranoia. It emanates from this idea of “fifth generation warfare” which has been taken to mean that everyone who expresses a point of view contrary to the established state narrative is somehow on the payroll of the enemy. One does not discount the possibility of such foreign interference but who is going to draw the line? Will it remain limited to the idea of foreign interference? Will not some pious operative not turn his attention to religious minorities and persecute them? Will the same pious operative not attack liberals, feminists, progressives and freethinkers for working against the “cultural values” which are in any event undefined. Where will this stop? Do we live in the 21st century or are we magically transported to the King Henry VIII’s England or Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain? Will we have a new inquisition in this country? You are calling forth a flood.”

In a recent piece titled ‘Pakistan puts press freedom at the core of struggle for new world order,’ James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, wrote about how Pakistan’s sweeping regulations restricting social media have “put freedom of expression and the media at the heart of the struggle to counter both civilizationalist and authoritarian aspects of an emerging new world order. The regulations, adopted without public debate, position US social media companies like Facebook and Twitter at the forefront of the struggle and raise the spectre of China’s walled off Internet with its own state-controlled social media platforms becoming the model for a host of illiberals, authoritarians and autocrats.”

According to Dorsey, Pakistan appears to be following in the footsteps of China. “Pakistan could become a prime country that adopts not only aspects of China’s 21st century, Orwellian surveillance state but also its tightly controlled media. The basis for potential Pakistani adoption of the Chinese system was created in 2017 in plans for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$60 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, an infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative to tie Eurasia to China. The 2017 plan identifies as risks to CPEC “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. The plan appears to question the vibrancy of a system in which competition between parties and interest groups is the name of the game. It envisions a full system of monitoring and surveillance to ensure law and order in Pakistani cities. The system would involve deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.” A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media that would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.” The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

After Mainstream Media, Pakistan Decides to Bring Social Media Under Control

Pakistan is one the deadliest countries for journalists and now we have also become one with one of the strictest social media regulations. On January 28th, the Pakistani federal cabinet, made it “compulsory for social media companies and platforms to get registered in Pakistan and open offices in the country.

According to a story in The News “The rules and regulations have been included in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and that senior officials in the Ministry of Information Technology confirmed that the cabinet has given the green light to the legal document. Hence, the rules and regulations do not require to be presented in parliament for approval. According to the law, all global social media platforms and companies will have to register in Pakistan within three months and open offices in Islamabad within three the same timeframe. The law requires the companies and platforms providing social media services to appoint a representative in Pakistan who will deal with a National Coordination Authority. The authority will be responsible for regulating social media companies. It requires social media companies to make data servers in Pakistan within one year. The law makes it compulsory for social media companies to provide data of accounts found guilty of targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, causing harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content, to intelligence and law enforcement agencies (LEAs). Authorities will take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions within Pakistan and abroad on social media. The law will also help LEAs get access to data of certain accounts found involved in suspicious activities.”

The global media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) asked that the government “immediately roll back a set of social media regulatory measures that were passed in secret. “These stringent but vague rules approved by Pakistan’s federal cabinet threaten the ability of journalists to report the news and communicate with their sources,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The cabinet should immediately reverse course and seek broad consultations with legislators and civil society, including the media, on how to proceed with any such regulations.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed concern “that the federal government has approved a set of rules designed to regulate social media platforms. Such a move – which has been made without consulting civil society stakeholders – has no credible justification. While the government has said that these rules are intended to prohibit ‘unlawful’ online content, HRCP is concerned that they will enable the designated authorities to control freedom of expression and opinion in the guise of protecting ‘religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities.’ Such broad parameters could well be used to justify removing online content deemed critical of state policies or to access unencrypted user data, making ordinary users vulnerable to the misuse of personal data. Political dissent will be the first to suffer. Given that the print and broadcast media are increasingly subject to implicit censorship, instituting such stringent rules will contract the space that exists for citizens to access information that the mainstream media does not, or cannot, provide. HRCP supports the statement issued by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, criticising this move, and urges the government to reconsider its decision.”

Case against Sedition: Why a colonial-era law should go?

The sedition law, section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, that is being used by the PTI government against both students as well as any protestors, including the PTM, is a colonial-era law that must go.

As lawyer and advocate, Babar Sattar, states “Our criminal justice practices are a product of part-apathy, part-inertia and part-malice. The system is designed to punish the accused. So pray to God you aren’t caught on the wrong side of the system.”

This particular section states that, “whoever… excites or attempts to excite disaffection toward the federal or provincial government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life…” Sattar argues “There are two sorts of bad law: laws blatantly oppressive to fundamental rights and settled principles of democracy, fairness and justice; and overbroad and poorly worded laws making them liable to be abused. Sedition law falls in both categories. It conceptually belongs to a time when rule of men reigned supreme and rule of law hadn’t yet evolved. Monarchs ruled by force and not by consent. Citizens were subjects, who neither had a role or say in installing government nor were allowed to criticize or remove it. They needed to be kept in check.”

Further, “The absurdity of the literal interpretation of sedition law was obvious even during colonial times. Back in 1942, CJ Gwyer of the Federal Court held while deciding Majumdar vs Emperor that, “the time is long past when mere criticism of governments was sufficient to constitute sedition, for it is recognized that the right to utter honest and reasonable criticism is a source of strength to a community rather than a weakness. Criticism of an existing system of government is not excluded, nor even the expression of desire for a different system altogether.” In a nutshell, as far back as 1942 courts established by our colonial masters held that only incitement of people to violence that could breach the peace and create disorder (and lead to overthrowing of government by force etc) would qualify as sedition. Our constitution allows for a mechanism to change the government. We have a coalition government at present. Why should it be an offence for example, for someone to advocate to coalition partners that they should withdraw their support for the government leading to its fall?”

Finally, “Section 124-A should be declared unconstitutional in its literal form, unless it is read down to mean criticism of government aimed at inciting violence. Why is it still being used to haul critical voices over the coals? Because citizens are still viewed as subjects. Their right to speak critically is to be controlled, as is their right to protest. If the criticism of the state by rabble-rousers begins to resonate, the state might feel accountable to the citizens and hence the need to control and shape public opinion. We are so accustomed to abuse of arrest power pending investigation and trial that we find nothing wrong with it. When you enter law school you are taught in Criminal Law 101 that an accused is arrested if s/he is: (i) a threat to society (often repeat offenders liable for heinous crimes); (ii) capable of destroying evidence; and (iii) a flight risk. (Monitoring and use of technology is now used to manage the flight risk bit instead of keeping accused under arrest). But this common sense approach is alien to us.”

Terrorists have better human rights than average citizens?

On January 11th, the former spokesman of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Ehsanullah Ehsan, escaped from his prison, and made his way to Turkey. This information was released in an audio recording this week that Ehsan made available. At a time when the world wants Pakistan to take firm action against terrorists, it turns out that terrorists actually are treated better than most prisoners and especially any civilan protestors.

As former editor of Dawn, Abbas Nasir wrote in a column titled ‘Inhuman terrorists rights,’ “It was clear that Ehsan did not face the full might of the law either, as his name was not among the TTP militants sentenced by the military courts. Now, that he has claimed in an audio on social media that he has escaped from Pakistani custody, details are emerging of his life in ‘detention’. One report attributed to unnamed sources said he was kept in a safe house in Peshawar and another media report pinpoints the location of that premises as being in Hayatabad. His family was lodged with him in the same house. In Ehsan’s case, he is said to have fathered a child while in captivity. This reminded me of another terror suspect who is said to have fathered a child while lodged in a cell in Rawalpindi’s Adiala prison. He may not have escaped abroad but was granted bail and released as the trial stalled. Ehsan was luckier if he is to be believed that he and his family, including the Hayatabad-conceived and born youngest member, are now in Turkey.”

Finally, “However, please, please don’t take the respect accorded to terrorists’ human rights to mistakenly believe that your rights will be afforded the same protection; if you feel an inflated sense of your own rights, lock yourself up in a room till you dispossess yourself of that notion. And, in any case, don’t exercise your right to free assembly and free speech in a public place as that could land you in thick soup, one with a twist of sedition on top. You are not a terrorist. You are the miserable loser, the type that protests against rights’ violations.”

Pakistani Dissident Attacked in Netherlands as State Crackdown on Dissent Grows

Washington: South Asians Against Terrorism & for Human Rights (SAATH Forum), a coalition of prominent democratic, liberal, nationalist, and progressive Pakistani dissidents, have strongly condemned an attack on Pakistani blogger Waqas Goraya in the Netherlands.

According to details, two men were waited for him near his house in exile, and attacked him as soon as he arrived there after work.

One of them made video of the attack while the other was beating Mr. Goraya. Talking to SAATH members, Mr. Goraya has accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI and the Army for commissioning this attack.

The Dutch Police have recorded his statement and is investigating the matter.

“The attack has happened on the day when Pakistan’s strongest human rights group, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and its supporters world over was holding protest demonstrations in many capitals of the world and major cities of Pakistan, in memory of Late Defender Arman Loni who was killed by Pakistani security agencies one year ago,” SAATH said.

“SAATH is observing the conduct of the state of Pakistan with strong concern for prevailing human rights situation in the country. In last ten days, Pakistani government has arrested Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of PTM, charged him for sedition, cracked down on unarmed, peaceful protestors thrice and has humiliated and arrested National Assembly member and PTM leader Mohsin Dawar. SAATH members are of the view that the attack on Mr Goraya appears to be a part of this same streak of state overreaction and authoritarianism against its own citizens. This clearly, is an attempt to silence all voices of dissent.”

However, the attack on Mr. Goraya who is not living in Pakistan, is worrisome also because it sets a very dangerous precedent wherein Pakistani state is seen to be using its influence among the diaspora to attack and perpetrate violence against the peaceful Human Rights Defenders of Pakistani origin. Having dissidents attacked in foreign countries has been a very old playbook of authoritarian regimes as was seen in case of Jamal Khashoggi. Pakistan’s embarking on this path is doubly more troubling because the country has rogue elements both within and without the state and can put lives of hundreds of law-abiding dissidents who are living in western world, in clear jeopardy.”

SAATH urged Dutch authorities to examine this line of inquiry and make sure that not only the culprits are caught, but if their link with Pakistan’s security agencies is proven, the Government of Pakistan must be encouraged to take action against those agencies. We also demand from the Government of Pakistan to immediately release all the protesters and Mr. Manzoor Pashteen. SAATH expresses its deepest sympathies and solidarity with Mr. Goraya, Mr. Pashteen and the protesters of PTM who have been harmed in any way or have been arrested.

Prominent members of SAATH include former Senator Afrasiab Khattak, former ambassadors Husain Haqqani and Kamran Shafi, and columnists Dr Mohammed Taqi, Rashed Rahman, Marvi Sirmed, Gul Bukhari, and Taha Siddiqui, and activists Rubina Greenwood, Saghir Shaikh, and Nabi Bukhsh Baloch.