SOCIAL MEDIA WARRIORS: the government and the campaigners

Spearhead Analysis – 24.05.2017

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

As Pakistan’s social media space is under strict surveillance following the controversial first of its kind Cyber Crimes Bill, the cyber space is not only heavily monitored but it seems is now also regulated.

Social media platforms have provided an impartial neutral space to not only voice concerns but to also criticize, influence, interact- and in some cases attack; government bashing, trolling, and harassing seems to be the online community’s favorite past time. But at a time when a wrong word, a mindless gesture, and political incorrectness can land you in jail or worse yet, get you killed on the street, the thin line between what can be considered ‘freedom of thought and speech’ is being saturated by the authorities within a cauldron of national security, patriotism, and nationalism.

While the need for cyber laws was a necessity of our age and time, but like everything else in Pakistan, it has the potential to be used for good and bad. The decision of that fate remains in the hands of the government.

Recently, social media platforms have seen an unwarranted criticism of the security forces. Online criticism of the armed forces began after Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor on May 10 announced the withdrawal of an earlier tweet, that “rejected” the government’s notification of the findings of a body set up to investigate a story published in Dawn last year. While the original tweet had already caused a wave of criticism both among political and social circles, yet after the tweet was retracted, social media spaces were flooded with commentary. So much so, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan ordered the cybercrime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to take action against those involved in an anti-army campaign on social media platforms.

According to details, FIA officials are closely monitoring all websites filled with content against security agencies and has traced at least 150 such websites. Similarly, it has also been unearthed that some people with affiliations to different political parties are using social media as a platform to spread anti-army content and arrests in this regard are already underway. It has not only identified dozens of suspects involved in what it calls an ‘organized campaign’, but have also taken some of them in custody for interrogation. Some of them are members of PML-N, and PTI’s media cells.

It would be pertinent to mention that the suspects in custody will only be charged after a detailed forensic analysis of their social media accounts. The initial Cyber Crime draft bill, which was tabled in the National Assembly in 2016, contained a section which made social media campaigns against law enforcement agencies a punishable offense but later it was chopped off from the final draft. Against this backdrop, a legislation vacuum is present which bars officials from taking action against those involved in such campaigns. This begs the question: How can law agencies then just ‘pick’ these suspects up without a warrant ? On what grounds have these suspects been detained?

While social media malpractice can be  technically challenging to prove, it is important to separate malpractice from social media freedom of speech. But by highlighting the issue, the government is perhaps fanning the fire more than extinguishing it. But more importantly, what exactly is ‘anti-army’ sentiments that the FIA is s painstakingly targeting? The arrested comprise young educated social media savvy individuals who are either socially aware and politically assertive and are members of the country’s leading political parties. It was reported that 23 members of PTI’s youth wing and members of their media cells were arrested. PTI has decided to sue the government in connection with these arrests.

Moreover, this begs the question of the presence of media cells in the country that have used that platform to not only change the wave of online opinion, but in some cases also shape it. It was alleged that the Prime Minister’s daughter runs a tight PML-N media cell and has been instrumental in changing the party’s relationship to the cyber world. While these ‘anti-army’ campaigns on the social media cannot be equated to an organized movement, it has provided an opening for the government to implement checks and controls not only on social media platforms, but media in general.

But there’s another angle to this; the wave of support that the army received during the former chief’s tenure is now being gradually eroded. At a time when the armed forces are fighting a prolonged war for survival within and on the borders of the country, this orchestrated campaign that has painted the army as ‘politically weak’ has provided an opening for  social media campaigns to fester into something ‘dangerous’. The exploitation of the social media is also a possibility. The Army has maintained a dignified silence secure in the knowledge that it has acted in the national interest and that it will continue to do so. The military has also demonstrated that it has no political ambitions and is fully supportive of democracy.

Ask any common man, their love support and respect for the armed forces has not diminished- it is a wonder then that the government’s single-minded crackdown on a few and far social media mercenaries has been painted as a ‘threat’ rather than a normal socio political reaction to the Dawn Leaks debacle. By criminalizing this wave of sentiment, the government has garnered more attention to itself  than warranted.

What people fear is that it is not just about silencing anti-military views but the target could also be the political opposition. With less than a year to the elections this becomes an important issue as is the state of civil-military relations. The government has the disadvantage of incumbency as far as criticism is concerned and it also faces judicial action on the Panama issue. On the other hand the PTI’s social media campaigns are organized, effective, and relatable to an increasingly aware populace—- by placing checks on them the government may have made the first move in its election campaign.

But these new ‘red lines’ that have been drawn for social media providers operating in the country by the Interior Minister are reminiscent of a previous ban on social networking sites, that will only adversely effect ‘freedom of thought, speech’ and the ‘right to congregate’, a constitutional right. Social media warriors should not be given the same status as that of a terrorist, a distinction the government is finding difficult to maintain. The Interior Minister, in a press conference, has, however, explained that it was the unacceptable language being used that has led to the governments reaction and that there was no other reason—public backlash seems to have had an effect.