Despatch from Karachi International

Pakistan’s war against dissent on social media

They are known as a group of public-spirited individuals committed to raising awareness of social and political issues through their writings and advocacies. Each of them was involved in several public campaigns in the past against hate speech and extremism. Now, the nine individuals have come together to challenge the Pakistani government’s crackdown on dissent on social media.

The group comprises Zohra Yousuf, former Human Rights Commission chairperson; Uzma Noorani, co-chairperson of the Commission; Farieha Aziz, a digital rights activist and head of the non-profit Bolo Bhi (Speak Up); journalists Afia Salam and Ghazi Salahuddin; filmmaker Ziad Zafar; writer Mahnaz Rehman; and lawyers Faisal Siddiqui and Jibran Nasir. In June first week, they sat together at the residence of Mr. Siddiqui in Karachi’s defence area to discuss the government crackdown on social networks. Dozens of people were already picked up by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to inquire about their anti-military views expressed on social media. The government defended the crackdown, saying the law bars any criticism of the military and the judiciary.

“I don’t get it why the military’s morale is affected by criticism on social media when it is allowed on the electronic media. The people who have been detained are not ‘baaghi’ or traitors,” Mr. Nasir, the lawyer who was present at the Karachi meeting, told The Hindu . After the meeting, the group decided to take on the crackdown legally. They filed a petition in the Sindh High Court, citing that the government action was a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution. They said the government is attempting to curb the fundamental right to free speech through unlawful detention and threats and harassment of individuals. “This petition is the coming together of people from different walks of life who all have been associated through the common goal of preserving civil liberties,” he said.

Pakistan’s cyber space is regulated by the FIA, which is responsible to enforce the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), passed by Parliament in August last year amid protests by Opposition parties and rights activists. The latest wave of arrests followed last month’s order by the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, to initiate action against persons running “anti-military” campaigns on the Internet. Following the announcement, the FIA detained dozens of people involved in what it calls “an organised campaign” against the armed forces on social media. One of them was Adnan Afzal Qureshi, an activist from Lahore, who was arrested on May 31 and charged under sections of PECA and Pakistan the Penal Code for cyber crimes as well as defamation. The FIA also seized laptops, phones and other electronic devices owned by the detained individuals without a court warrant, said activists.

Scuttling freedom of speech

The FIA has also sent inquiry notices to a number of political and social activists. The notices direct the addressees to appear at the FIA Counter Terrorism wing headquarters in Islamabad by a specified time and date. The notices are vague in nature and do not specify any alleged offence or the name of the accused. Activists say the notices are another attempt to scuttle the freedom of speech and to harass and intimidate people.

Mr. Nasir and his comrades want the High Court to rule that Article 19 of the Constitution protects freedom of expression and the right to criticise any branch of the government. “We want a clear interpretation of Article 19, which guarantees freedom of expression.”

Mubashir Zaidi writes for The Hindu and is based in Karachi.

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Printable version | May 19, 2022 8:01:49 pm |