Pakistan military’s quest for positive image threatens freedom of expression

On the morning of January 10th, 2019, I received an email notification from Twitter’s legal team informing me of my supposed violation of Pakistani laws. The message read that Twitter had received official correspondence regarding my account but hasn’t yet taken any action and that I am being informed about the official complaint.

The email did not specify the content in subject.

My first thought went to the tweet I had posted on January 8th of a picture of some ambulances carrying unidentified dead bodies to a graveyard in Quetta, Balochistan, to be buried without any proper attempt at identifying the victims.

I had questioned the civil authorities for not conducting DNA to ascertain the identity of the deceased, following serious concerns raised by local rights groups over the bodies being of the victims of enforced disappearance, a common security practice in the war-torn province of Balochistan.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one who received a Twitter warning for violating Pakistani laws. Notable accounts of Balochistan’s rights personalities including Nasrullah Baloch, Mama Qadeer, Latif Johar and others received similar warnings for tweeting about those unidentified bodies allegedly discovered from a mass grave being buried without proper investigation. How does this break the Pakistani law, Twitter?

Meanwhile, at a new burial site , the bodies, numbered to be 10 and alleged to be discovered from a mass grave, were hurriedly buried by the civil authorities with the help of a charity organization, giving the clear impression of civil authorities trying to cover up the crimes of some powerful state institution. Surprisingly, no Pakistani media or any other international media covered the news or even made an effort to question the authorities.

The twitter notice brought back the dark memories of my own abduction when I was brutally tortured for months by Pakistani intelligence authorities after being abducted and subjected to enforced disappearance. Maybe that´s what the Twitter notice meant to achieve. It evoked the same kind of fear from which I had tried to run away by leaving my country.

I later learned that Twitter was asked by Pakistan to issue similar notices to non-Pakistanis too, like Canadian activist Insaf Haider, Australian activist Imam Mohammed Tawhidi and to Op-ed editor of Toronto Sun Mr. Furey.

But I am still dumbfound thinking how could an innocent tweet asking to confirm the identity of some dead bodies irk a nuclear power, compelling it to force the social media giant to send me a notice.

I am forced to ask myself if the protection of global freedom of expression is under threat?

The answer can be a “no” but only if you tweet “positive news” on Pakistan as instructed by the army spokesman in his 6th December, 2018, news conference.

It was also at that conference that he had mentioned about the so-called “fifth generation warfare”, an ambiguous term that has lately grown in popularity particularly due to the powerful army´s propaganda on social and conventional media. The army spokesman said in the news conference:

“The media has the most critical role among all institutions due to fifth generation warfare. The media turned around the situation in Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad. I have met anchor persons and media owners and urged them for a more positive role by media. Media has a front line role in fifth generation warfare”.

The quest for the so-called “positive news” is not something new and has always been expected in one way or another from Pakistani journalists and human rights activists. In fact, in Balochistan the demand for this positivity is so urgent that one senior sub-editor, Haji Abdul Razzak, of a local newspaper Daily Tawar was kidnapped by unknown men and then his dead body was thrown with “Long Live Pakistan” inscribed on it with a knife. The offices of the newspaper in Karachi were later raided and sealed.

The Chief Editor of another local newspaper Asaap, Jan Mohammed Dashti, received a bullet in the head in an attack by unknown men. He survived, closed down his newspaper and found safety in silence.

They are not the only journalists from Balochistan to suffer this fate; dozens others who had knowingly or unknowingly overstepped the boundaries drawn by the security establishment encountered a similar fate at the hands of the very same unknown men. Journalists with opposing views from Balochistan who could escape death and resettle in the West can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

In other parts of Pakistan, the suppression of the media, in comparison to Balochistan, has not been so blatant until recently. The recent examples of systematic attempts to undermine opposing views was by banning circulations of certain news groups and reducing revenues by threatening advertisers not to advertise their products in these media groups.

The newspapers and TV channels of Pakistan´s largest English language Dawn and Urdu language Jang were affected and in some areas cable operators were told to take their TV channel off air.

In a more recent move in December 2018, Voice of America´s (VOA) Pashto and Urdu websites were blocked and police cases were filed against journalists covering Pashtun Tehafuz Movement´s (PTM) rallies. The PTM is a rights movement that demands the safe release of thousands of forcibly disappeared Pashtuns, allegedly by security forces.

The mission to induce positive news has not been confined to the conventional media. Recently, the authorities began to hire self-titled Western media experts as online foot soldiers to fight their so-called “fifth generation warfare” and promote a positive image of Pakistan on the social media. These “Westerners” are hired in addition to thousands of Pakistani troll soldiers to turn a non-news into a trending topic on twitter any time they want.

Authorities have also lodged police cases and complaints against anyone who dares to express an opposing view online.

In 2017, four bloggers who ran a satirical page on Facebook and had in some posts ridiculed the army were enforced disappeared. They were released after widespread protests from the civil society. After being released, Ahmed Waqas Goraya, one of the abductees, blamed the powerful army for his abduction in an interview with the BBC.

Like all previous wars, this war on democracy, human rights and freedom of expression is also fueled by the same paranoia that has led Pakistan army to engage in several conflicts with India and a proxy war in Afghanistan.

With the largest chunk of the Pakistani budget at their disposal, the security forces have grown so intruding, manipulative and all-encompassing that there can possibly be never true democracy.

The notices that the Pakistani security apparatus is sending to social media activists around the world only indicate its desire to expand its punitive tactics at an international level to suppress any dissenting voice.