Dawn Hackers: Lynch Mob or Contract Hit Job?

Hackers target DawnYou have surely by now seen the alert. Dawn media group has been under attack by hackers since the last three months. All web sites are at risk from hackers who want to display some messages as pranks or spam, but this appears to be a more serious type of operation.

“for the past three months and a number of attempts have been made to hack and hijack its official social media accounts and the accounts of its staff”

So these hackers are not just trying to deface Dawn’s website, they are also targeting the individuals who work for Dawn. What are they looking for? For some clue, we might look at the time line of the attacks.

Dawn first reported that they were being targeted by hackers in January, but the media group’s troubles started a few months earlier when they published a controversial report about a meeting between PM Nawaz Sharif and DG ISI Gen Rizwan Akhtar in which Pakistan’s growing international isolation and willingness to take on all militant groups was allegedly discussed.

The report caused a panic in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. A Corps Commanders meeting was called and ISPR termed it ‘a breach of national security‘. PM House also released a strongly worded statement saying that publishing the report ‘had risked the vital state interests‘, and the reporter Cyril Almeida’s name was temporarily placed on ECL as if he were a wanted criminal.

From unofficial quarters, the response was even more extreme. Social media has been flooded with hashtag campaigns including:

#DawnIsATraitor

#DawnIndianPawn

#ArmyActForDawn

As usual, even media talking heads are smelling blood and promoting the narrative that Dawn is in league with India.


Is it any surprise that some hackers have put Dawn and even its staff in their sights? The question is whether this attack on Dawn is an informal response of an angry group intent on punishing Dawn without any trial – in other words a lynch mob? It is difficult to pinpoint the source of social media trends which occur both intentionally or unintentionally. However, the extent of the hacking operations targeting Dawn mean this could be something else: A contract hit job funded by those with the means and motivation to silence a media group that they believe has breached national security.

It is well known that the latest front in modern defence is cyber warfare and the battle for control of narratives and information. Cyber warriors operate like spies, lurking in the shadows of the internet and protecting their anonymity as a cloak to hide their goals and their methods. This gives state agencies who sponsor them cover of ‘plausible deniability’. Also like spies, many of cyber warfare operations are carried out by contractors, not uniformed soldiers, making it even harder to trace.

But there are still clues that raise questions. Who can support a three months long hacking operation? And if it was only some hypernationalist vigilantes looking to bring down the Dawn website, why are they targeting reporters social media accounts? Could they be trying to search through DMs for any incriminating evidence? Could such an operation be carried out by one or two hackers, or is it a team that is working? And if this is the case, who has trained and organised this team of cyber warriors?

There is another question, too. Most every other country treats hacking of media as an attack on national security. However in this case, there has been no response by security agencies, and no investigation has been demanded or announced. If it was believed that a cyber attack on a national media group was coming from Indian or other hostile agencies, surely there would be an appropriate response. In this case, though, the attack is met with silence. Is that silence a sign of approval?

Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi is expected to resign over allegations of his involvement in leaking the information contained in the controversial Dawn report by the special committee set up to investigate the leaks. If he is found to have leaked sensitive or secret information, it is appropriate for him to resign or be sacked to stop future leaks.

Problem of leaking is only one part of the problem, though. There is also the issue of a massive hacking operation targeting national media. Unfortunately, till date there has been no sign of any interest in investigating or acting against those responsible. Actually, it is quite the opposite. Without an official investigation and report, this will leave the answers about who is behind it to your own imagination.

#CyrilGate: Has ISI Changed Its Tune on Fake News?

Corps CommandersNation’s top military leadership (in other words, the nation’s leadership) met to discuss the latest threat to national security: This news report in English daily DAWN. At the meeting, Army leaders ‘expressed their serious concern over feeding of false and fabricated story’ to the media. The confused and contradictory nature of officials’ response to the story has given it some credibility, and it must be noted that DAWN has defended the report saying it was only published ‘after verification from multiple sources’. However I am not writing to defend or deny the report’s authenticity. Rather, I am writing to ask whether there has been some change within the establishment’s position on fake news stories?

Disinformation and propaganda has been a tool of the establishment for decades or longer. DAWN itself has been a willing participant in such activities as can be seen on the archived pages from 1971 war.

17 December 1971 Dawn front page

One does not need to go back that far to find evidences of fake news stories, though. It was only a few years ago that Pakistan found itself facing international embarrassment after it was discovered that our media were reporting on a fake wikileaks cable in order to embarrass India. At that time, Ahmed Quraishi actually responded by defending the feeding of false and fabricated news stories. Today, without even a drop of shame, he is hosting a TV programme demanding an official commission to investigate the same.

hypocrite Ahmed QuraishiAhmed Quraishi’s shameless U-turn on the cleverness of false and fabricated news stories raises further points. AQ has actually been connected with several fake news operations during recent years along with others. Earlier this year, Umar Cheema exposed the fake news site ‘ABC News Point’ just as Cafe Pyala had exposed a dozen or more fake news sites being run under shadowy circumstances (also connected to Ahmed Quraishi!)

It remains to be seen whether the top brass have the good sense to cut their losses, but one has to wonder whether ISI’s M-Wing, which is headed by a Rear Admiral and staffed by several Brigadiers and other officers, sees the irony in having the Army Chief himself serious concern over feeding of false and fabricated stories.

Attacking Journalists. Damaging Pakistan.

Cyril AlmeidaIf the state was looking for global attention, it finally found it – but not for the reasons it had hoped. In a shocking mis-step, government officials informed Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida that his name had been placed on the Exit Control List as if he were a wanted criminal.

His crime? Reporting that the civilians had finally shown some backbone and demanded the military do its job and go after militants without fear or favour. Officials denied the story, but as usual they couldn’t let it go. The report has now been officially denied not once…not twice…but THREE times, assuring anyone with half a brain that there was something very true about it. If there was still any doubt, the Pindibot Corps has been carrying out social media surgical strikes that confirmed the reports authenticity.

The irony in this case is that if Cyril’s report is really so damaging, once again it is the response of government officials and their hyper-patriot lackeys that has turned a minor footnote into a global embarrassment.

Unlike Aabpara’s PM’s diplomatic envoys who failed to get any attention during their trip to Washington, their attempts to threaten and intimidate a respected journalist got more attention than they wanted.

Where Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi and Senator Mushahid Hussain have failed to get any attention from the international media, the state’s assault on Cyril Almeida’s rights has earned more coverage than they could have imagined.

At a time when the state claims to be attempting to improve Pakistan’s image in the world, what could have possibly been a stupider move than to attack another well respected journalist. Government denied the story, but couldn’t let it go. If the past weeks have clearly shown anything, it’s that western conspiracies and foreign agents are completely unnecessary to damage Pakistan. The sheer incompetence of our own civil-military leadership is more than enough.

I.A. Rehman: Jinnah’s New Pakistan Is Possible

Jinnah The following piece is courtesy Dawn and was originally published on 14th August.

The discourse on Pakistan’s political ideal has taken a new turn. Those calling for the establishment of Jinnah’s Pakistan are being challenged with a demand for creating a ‘new Pakistan.’ Essentially, this is a new form of the tussle between secular democrats and advocates of a theocratic dispensation that is as old as the state itself.

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The selfish state and the near-sighted voter

I was very interested in Cyril Almeida’s column for Dawn today. In it, Cyril does a great job of expressing what is, I think, a common frustration – especially among the urban intelligentsia. We got our democracy in 2008, and it’s been three years – why doesn’t Islamabad look like London yet? And if everyone is as disappointed as the people in my sitting room, what is going to happen in the next elections?

Cyril says that conventional wisdom’s focus on constituency is undermined by the unpredictability of two factors. The first, demographics.

Conventional wisdom has it that the people want democracy to continue, they don’t want the army back. But the last time that theory was tested, a mere 35 million people turned out to vote in 2008. What did the other 130 million want?

Remove kids aged 14 and below from the scope of political action, and you’re still left with 80-odd million people whose opinion we know little about. Are they just indifferent to democracy, at least Pakistan’s version of it, or are they a combustible mixture waiting for the right catalyst to be poured on?

This is compelling in the long-term, but not for the next elections because Cyril’s overstating the case. “The other 130 million” don’t necessarily have a say in elections. Children, for example, don’t get a vote. Cyril recognises this when he says, ‘remove kids aged 14 and below…’, but why stop there? Imran Khan may be the fashionable choice of a couple million urban teenagers, but the fact remains that no matter how many Imran Khan Facebook pages a 16-year-old likes, he still doesn’t get to vote.

Let’s compare voter turnout in Pakistan to voter turnout in two of the oldest and most prosperous democracies, the UK and US.

In the UK, voter turnout has been better, but has still never broken the 85 per cent mark, typically hovering closer to 75 per cent. But when you break it down by age, young people don’t vote. Only 44 per cent of Britains under 25 bothered to show up in 2010.

In America, voter turnout over the past half-century has hovered around 55 per cent. In the 2008 elections, voter turnout was over 60 per cent, but in 2010 it dropped to 41 per cent. Young Americans, though, are less likely than older Americans to vote. When the voting turnout reached 61 per cent in 2008, over 50 per cent of young people voted. But two years later, young voter turnout dropped by 60 per cent.

Whatever young people want, it doesn’t matter if they don’t show up to vote. And empirical evidence suggests that, for many reasons beyond being ‘just indifferent to democracy’, they’re probably not going to show up en masse to storm the polls in the next elections, either.

Then there’s the other possible ‘element of surprise’ that Cyril mentions.

Still, the notion that Pakistani politics is about constituency, constituency, constituency is undercut by the results of the last two elections. In ’08, the electorate singled out Musharraf’s men for punishment; in ’02, the American arrival in Afghanistan powered the MMA to wins in Balochistan and then-NWFP.

I would take issue with this reading of electoral history as well. In 2008, the electorate certainly was fed up with Musharraf’s decade of dictatorial misrule, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that the people were simply voting against Mushy and would have voted for anyone just to punish him. 2008 was not that long ago, and I still remember the mood quite well. We wanted not just to get rid of Musharraf’s regime, but to usher in a new era of democracy – which we did, messy though it may be.

Where I think Cyril is really off the mark, though, is how he describes the MMA success in 2002. Though it may be convenient to look at the American arrival in Afghanistan, it’s beyond reductive to leave out the less convenient fact that the MMA’s ‘vote for Quran or vote for America’ campaign still only managed to win 63 seats, and that while PPP and PML-N were being handicapped by LFO. And even this supposed ‘rise to power’ only really took place, as Cyril notes, in parts of Balochistan and NWFP. Without the help of the state and establishment, MMA’s gains were wiped out in 2008, despite the fact that anti-American sentiment was much higher than in 2002.

As for the possibility that “a right-wing ideologue could ride the wave of crazed religiosity that a Mumtaz Qadri-type act can unleash”, I think this is much more likely a scenario in the paranoid halls of Washington than the streets of Jhelum. Not because a disturbing number of people aren’t sympathetic to Salmaan Taseer Shaheed’s killer, but because that sympathy is rooted in complicated socio-cultural issues and not a popular desire to live under a Taliban-style theocratic regime.

The more interesting variable is, as always, the establishment. The ‘deep state’ has a long history of meddling in politics. Supposedly, the political wing of ISI has been disbanded, but even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility of it being reinstated if certain elements felt it was in ‘national interest’ to do so. There’s been some suggestion that establishment support is responsible for Imran Khan’s uncanny rise from zero to the front page, but it remains to be seen whether Imran Khan’s main constituency will be willing to melt in the hot sun on election day.

Then there’s the really scary scenario that Cyril explores.

As for the rank and filers tucked away in their orderly cantonments, who’s to say what they’re really thinking about and talking over among themselves. Rural and urban Pakistan have not stood still over the last 30 years, so why must the products of those societies be what they have always been, docile and disciplined?

This is what I would call the real ‘Bangladesh Option’, seeing as how it would likely result in a re-play of the early years there with one ‘rank-and-file’ coup after another spinning the nation into even greater chaos and disorder. Still, perhaps I have more faith than Cyril in the discipline and good sense of the rank and file because I just don’t see this happening.

But the biggest point of confusion in Cyril’s piece is in the conclusion.

And what’s the point of a transition to democracy when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff?

When a state exists to tend to its own needs to the almost-total exclusion of the public’s dreams and aspirations, it will eventually become a nightmare for everyone involved.

The point of a transition to democracy is that when the choices made by a civilian set-up simply nudge the country a little closer to the edge of a cliff…you get to change the set up without having to actually push the country off the cliff. Democracy allows the public to demand that the state respond to the public’s dreams and aspirations. It’s the dictatorship, whether of khahkis or clerics, that produces real nightmares.