Twitter warns 2 Pakistan activists about govt criticism: Cyber crime bill has emboldened deep state to silence dissent

Two years ago a cyber crime bill was tabled in Pakistan's Legislative Assembly for the first time. It emerged from the genuine need to curtail cyber harassment where minorities, civil rights movements and women bore the brunt of egregious online behaviour. Stalking, fake accounts, promotion of hate speech and proscribed organisations being active online were rampant.

Meanwhile, some people and groups tried to raise awareness about the online rights we hold as citizens of Pakistan. Bytes For All, for instance, is an award-winning organisation led by Nighat Sad, employing dedicated advocates for inviolable internet rights. With the existence of groups such as this, it never seemed like such a day would come when social media outlets themselves become complicit in the repression of these rights.

Unfortunately, today seems to be just such a day. Two people who have been demanding more transparency from the army and the State's various intelligence agencies have been warned by Twitter to discontinue making controversial statements that malign the State machinery. This seems all the more peculiar given Twitter is one of the global social media platforms that goes the furthest in actively encouraging freedom of speech.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

The complaint to Twitter was no doubt made on the behalf of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). For two agencies that are supposed to work in clandestine ways, they certainly make a loud racket in public court rooms and on crowded television panels.

The first person warned by Twitter was Taha Siddiqui, a journalist who has covered — in an unbiased and objective manner — the war against the Pakistani Taliban in the erstwhile FATA region that saw bombs raining down on villages and towns. leaving many thousands displaced.

The second was Gul Bukhari. Again a prominent critic of the army's excessive ways, she has been using Twitter to reach as many people as possible so to start a conversation about the army being partisan in political matters and in fact, makes it very clear who it supports and why. And so, she has been silenced and made a persona non grata for questioning the deep state's narrative.

To put this into perspective, a few days ago, the hate-mongering mullah Khadim Hussain Rizvi was also banned from the social media platform for making a hate speech against the Ahmadiyya minority in Pakistan and demanding the death penalty for Asia Bibi, who had been acquitted by the Supreme Court in a case of alleged blasphemy. That the account was probably being run by someone on Rizvi's behalf, is besides the point. The key fact here is that a hate-mongering mullah calling for murder apparently falls in the same category as unarmed, non-violent dissidents.

When the cyber crime bill was first proposed, many people were unsettled by the vague but extensive powers the FIA would hold in the online realm. Since its enactment, multiple critics of the State have been abducted over Facebook pages and tweets.

So why the sudden interest in social media 'dissidents'?

At some point the intelligence agencies, particularly the military ones, decided that the private media explosion at the start of the millennium (ironically started by military dictator Pervez
Musharraf) and the explosion of social media (which is proving impossible to regulate; even the Taliban had social media accounts defending its violence and ideology), the agencies and the armed
forces realised that they need a proactive approach to keep a check on things.

Hence, the speedy passing of cyber crime laws. It gives the agencies permission to pick up and detain suspects for three months without any warrant or having to or appear before a magistrate. This has seen a spike in disappearances; it has also given the ISI or military intelligence carte blanche to abduct people, interrogate them and then throw them into an FIA jail where the legal formalities can then be retrospectively fulfilled.

This was very tricky before the introduction of the sweeping powers awarded to the FIA through the cyber crime laws.

A Facebook page called Bhensa, for instance, was vocal in challenging the army endorsed state narrative which saw four people suspected of running the page abducted. It took months for them to be released. With incidents such as these in mind, Human Rights Watch has made a list of people under threat of abduction. It's a pretty comprehensive list.

And there were many familiar names on it, including Siddiqui, who survived an attempted abduction by what was likely an intimidatory tactic by the FIA (they had frequently warned him over the phone to stop 'seditious' activities). Taha has since moved to France to escape further trouble. He was in the employ of the Indian news channel World Is One News as the Pakistan bureau chief.

His vocal criticism of the armed forces' handling of the Pakistani Taliban earned him numerous threats and warnings by the FIA; Siddiqui even filed a case against the harassment in the Islamabad High Court. He was represented by the now deceased Asma Jehangir. But he wasn't entirely confident that the State that was intimidating him would comply with a restraining order by a high court judge.

For now, the intimidation and coercion tactics show no sign of going anywhere.

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2018 12:26:15 IST

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