Pakistan Becoming a Police State

riot police Karachi

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.

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.

What Mohammad Taqi’s firing means for freedom of press in Pakistan

breaking free

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.

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.

Stay tuned…