A few days ago a story began appearing all over Pakistan media that reported “Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif has topped the list of military generals in the world”, even beating out Army chiefs from Germany, the US, South Korea, Japan, Russia, India, Turkey, China and the UK. It is an impressive example of global appreciation, and not the first one for the military. Last year ISI was ranked the best spy agency of the world also. What is the source of these rankings? A website called “ABC News Point”. No, not the American news channel. And no, not the Australian news channel either. So, who exactly is this “ABC News Point”? Following my report exposing another covert propaganda operation using fake websites to fool Pakistanis, Umar Cheema wanted to know. What he found out may surprise you.
Saleem’s excellent investigative work that helped expose a covert propaganda ring has received a lot of attention. Spearhead Research has changed the registration information to a privacy company for its website and its other sites, and the other websites have begun disappearing completely. This is not surprising. The same thing happened a few years ago when Cafe Pyala exposed another covert propaganda ring. In fact, I want to thank Cafe Pyala for their excellent work as it has given the idea to start tracking these websites when they show up. Just because these are being quietly removed, it is all but certain that new ones are already being prepared to take their place. However, there is another point that needs to be made about this attempt to fool people with invented ‘news’ stories and orchestrated narratives. It doesn’t only take place on the internet. It is taking place every night in our homes.
The term ‘police state’ is defined as “a state controlled by a political police force that secretly supervises the citizens’ activities”. Is this a fitting description for Pakistan, which is supposedly a democracy? The answer to this question may be unsettling.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb was long overdue as terrorist outfits had been given leniency since too long which resulted in the inevitable. However, there are a growing number of examples of ‘national security’ being used as an excuse for ever expanding police powers against the citizens of Pakistan.
YouTube appears to be permanently blocked, despite the fact that no one can point to any legitimate reason why limiting access to the site is necessary. This is a relatively minor inconvenience as videos are widely available on other sites, and there are easy ways to access YouTube anyway. The point, though, is that is an early example of the state arbitrarily trying to control what information private citizens can get.
A more alarming example is the growing pressurisation of journalists and media with the most recent case being the firing of Daily Times columnist Mohammad Taqi under direction from Army. Taqi’s case has made international headlines, but it is not the only one. Actually, the media has become increasingly limited in what is reported and the positions that are presented. This is a process that began over one year ago as it was reported in February 2014 that media groups had begun directing journalists not to report anything critical of Army or right-wing political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and PTI. During this time we have seen those like Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid returning to the spotlight and preaching a certain agenda.
While the media is increasingly becoming a hyper-nationalistic mouthpiece, Army is expanding its role as well. Civilians in the government are being replaced by military officers, and military courts are being expanded to replace the civilian justice system. Besides Zarb-e-Azb, Karachi Operation also shows no signs of ending as Rangers continue to target liberal political parties while religious extremists continue to terrorise minorities.
— Zoha Waseem (@ZohaWaseem) November 23, 2015
In each of these cases, officials and their mouthpieces in the new media justify the expansion of police powers by saying it is necessary for national security. However the latest case was unexpectedly exposed and has revealed what is really going on. Of course I am talking about the announcement that Blackberry will stop providing services in Pakistan due to government demands. As per usual, state officials have said that they have asked Blackberry for help in catching terrorists, but now a Blackberry official has revealed the truth on their website.
The truth is that the Pakistani government wanted the ability to monitor all BlackBerry Enterprise Service traffic in the country, including every BES e-mail and BES BBM message. But BlackBerry will not comply with that sort of directive. As we have said many times, we do not support “back doors” granting open access to our customers’ information and have never done this anywhere in the world.
Pakistan’s demand was not a question of public safety; we are more than happy to assist law enforcement agencies in investigations of criminal activity. Rather, Pakistan was essentially demanding unfettered access to all of our BES customers’ information. The privacy of our customers is paramount to BlackBerry, and we will not compromise that principle.
What we said in July when rumors of Pakistan’s decision started to swirl remains true today: “BlackBerry provides the world’s most secure communications platform to government, military and enterprise customers. Protecting that security is paramount to our mission. While we recognize the need to cooperate with lawful government investigative requests of criminal activity, we have never permitted wholesale access to our BES servers.”
While we are justifiably outraged by the statements from Western politicians that want to monitor all mosques and Muslims, treating everyone as if they are a potential terrorist, our government is doing exactly that already. Is it true that in order to secure the country, we must monitor every citizens as if they are a terrorist threat?
Actually there is another possible reason for blanket monitoring which has been done by totalitarian regimes in the past. By monitoring every citizen closely and reading their messages, totalitarian police states such as Nazi Germany and USSR were infamous for collecting private citizens secrets and using to blackmail them to spy on their neighbors. Is this what we have become already?
There is no question that we are in a fight for our lives against jihadi terrorists and their extremist takfiri ideology. In this fight, Army and other security forces have an obvious role to play, but we must be careful that their role does not seep into every corner of our lives and turn Pakistan into a totalitarian police state.
Army’s grip on media has been tightening ever since it was loosened it in 2002, ironically by the military dictator Gen Musharraf. Some of the pressure is to hold Army’s official PR narrative that Zarb-e-Azb is a huge success and Pakistan is a nation on the rise instead of one steeped in extremism and violence. It is why even though hundreds of innocents are killed in terrorist attacks, the mood of the nation is improving. But this is like hypnotising a cancer patient to believe they are healed. They may be happier, but the cancer continues to eat away at their body anyway.
The genius of Army’s censorship of media is that it is usually indirect and happens behind the scenes. Mostly this has been cleverly accomplished by pressurising media owners and their editors to self-censor, giving the Army its much loved ‘plausible deniability’. Yes, there is the occasional case of someone like Saleem Shahzad or Hamid Mir, but these are extreme cases used to send a message to more…sensible…journalists. But what happens when a journalist lives overseas and refuses to tow the Army’s line. What happens if his weekly column is airing dirty laundry and raising very uncomfortable questions about sensitive issues like Balochistan? Living overseas makes him harder to…persuade…and so maybe his column just goes away. This is what has apparently happened with columnist Mohammad Taqi who has had his column canceled by Daily Times under pressure from Army.
A six-year association with the Daily Times thus ends under pressure from the army. It’s an honor to have you readers & friends by my side
— Mohammad Taqi (@mazdaki) November 27, 2015
The last straw may have been his last column for Daily Times, which directly contradicted Army’s statements to US officials, and did so with very inconvenient facts.
We should think about what this means. Daily Times is well known as a liberal newspaper. It is published in English. This has usually provided some protection as the audience is seen as too small and liberal to matter. It provides more plausible deniability as officials can point to this and say, “See, we have a robust debate in our media!” As long as everyone knows their place and the acceptable boundaries, things are fine. Remember, Raza Rumi was not attacked until he began giving his analysis in Urdu, not English.
With Mohammad Taqi’s firing means is that these boundaries are shrinking. Now even in Daily Times it is not acceptable to contradict the official line.
Those who want to manage – or hide – the truth have obviously not learned one important lesson from the United States. The more you try to cover up the truth, the more it will spread. From Wikileaks to Edwards Snowden, there are people who are not willing to be silenced. Mohammad Taqi’s column may not appear in Daily TImes, but it will not go away.
In response to Daily Times canceling Mohammad Taqi’s column, New Pakistan will be opening up our site to any journalist who is being pressurised by his editor or his media group. We will publish the truth without fear, and make sure the voices of progressive Pakistan does not go silent.
Every media group picks up stories from other media groups. Today, Express Tribune picked up a report from Australia about a group of Muslim students who did not participate in singing the Australian national anthem during a school fair. The headline of the article says the students “walked out” during their country’s national anthem. However, the reality is that the school invited Shia students to leave the room before the singing began out of respect for Murrham. The school principal explained this perfectly.
“During the month of Muharram, Shias do not take part in joyous events, such as listening to music or singing, as it was a period of mourning. Muharram is a Shia cultural observation marking the death of Imam Hussain. This year it falls between Tuesday October 13 and Thursday November 12,” Principal Irving said.
“Prior to last week’s years 2-6 assembly, in respect of this religious observance, students were given the opportunity to leave the hall before music was played. The students then rejoined the assembly at the conclusion of the music,” the principal added.
Despite the reality, Express Tribune published a sensational headline along with a photo of school children with their backs turned which gives the impression that Muslim students showed disrespect for their country rather than the reality which is that the school was showing respect for the Muslim students.
It is clear from the report that some non-Muslims are very upset because they incorrectly believe that the students were turning their backs on their country and saying that the national anthem is against their culture. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth and the entire incident is due to ignorance of the facts. As a respected media group in a Muslim country, Express Tribune should know better than to feed Islamophobic ignorance and by repeating the incorrect view that the students “walked out” and “turned their backs” on their country. Instead, Express Tribune could have used the story to report about how a secular country like Australia is showing respect for Muslims. This would not only correct the false impressions that are being spread but it would also serve as a model for our own schools about respect for religious minorities does not mean disrespect for the nation.