External Affairs

Behind Pakistan’s Call for ‘Red Lines’ for Social Media, an Attempt to Silence Critics of the Army

Restrictions on social media posts will not allow citizens to question the policies and actions of the military.

The military successfully muzzles print and broadcast news, and now it’s social media’s turn. Credit: Reuters

The Nawaz government in Pakistan is on the verge of further eroding freedom of expression by drawing official ‘red lines’ for content posted on Twitter, Facebook and other social media websites.

Pakistan’s constitution gives citizens the right to freedom of expression, and the country is a signatory to the human rights charter, which provides for the freedom of expression in Article 19.

Despite this, the government often tries to control media and its free voices in the name of religion and cultural values, and has been particularly successful in doing so when it comes to print and broadcast outlets.

But the ruling party recently revealed the real reason behind this action against free speech.

“Ridiculing the army and its officers under the garb of freedom of expression is unacceptable,” interior minister Choudhary Nisar Khan said in a public statement.

We should not forget that now at least ridiculing of politicians – including parliamentarians – is acceptable.

If the government follows through with this plan and draws severe restrictions for social media posting, then journalists and common citizens will lose their right to speak out against wrong policies and actions by government institutions.

Journalists and common citizens posting on social media do not challenge the sovereignty of Pakistan by giving voice to voiceless, by commenting on problems such as forced conversion of non-Muslims girls to Islam and by exposing corruption. They are not eroding the nation’s security when they question the disappearance of citizens in Balochistan and links to the military.

Journalists seek the truth — for the good of the state. They are not taking ‘anti-state’ actions, a catch-all term used by the government.

For instance, I was personally threatened a few years ago after I responded to a tweet from an army public relations director about a story in the New York Times further exposing the military’s knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan.

“Allegations in the story of Carlotta Gal,NYT of 19 Mar baseless, ridiculous. Nothing new/credible, all speculations already proven false,” stated a tweet from lieutenant general Asim Saleem Bajwa.

My response:

A reaction to my tweet:

The government never bothers to look into such threats against journalists on social media but is now going to draw red lines for social media. If I post a similar comment after the lines are drawn, will I face consequences?

The threat against this basic, constitutional freedom comes as social media is exploding in popularity in Pakistan. For example, the number of Facebook users tripled in just three years, from 2013 to 2016.

In 2015, Pakistan’s parliament tried to control all digital media by passing a cyber crime bill in the name of religion and sovereignty of the country.

So why does the government want to draw red lines for social media now?

Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan said on May 15, “The country’s social, moral and cultural values and law and dignity of people, not social media, were under attack.” Then he warned, “Those attacking our values will be brought to book.”

On June 18, Mubashir Zaidi wrote an article for The Hindu headlined ‘Pakistan’s war against dissent on social media’ and recounted the discussion among digital rights activists about the government’s crackdown on social media. “Dozens of people were already picked up by the Federal Investigation Agency to inquire about their anti-military views expressed on social media,” he wrote. “The government defended the crackdown, saying the law bars any criticism of the military and the judiciary.”

The genesis for the current action can be traced to an article in the Dawn published on October 6, 2016. The report exposed the tension between the military and the civilian government, which expressed concerns about Pakistan’s international isolation.

The military did not question the truth of the article but demanded that the government investigate who leaked the report.

On April 29, the government investigation of the report put all the responsibility on the shoulders of Dawn, even though the newspaper stood by its article and its sources. It did not disclose who leaked the information.

That same day, Major General Asif Ghafoor, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s armed forces, tweeted: “Notification on Dawn Leak is incomplete and not in line with recommendations by the inquiry board. Notification is rejected.”

The government immediately stepped back and said it would come up with a new notification.

Then on May 27, interior minister Khan announced the plan to draw “red lines” and issued this contradictory message: “There will be no restrictions on social media. But, yes, there will be red lines in accordance with the law and constitution of the country.”

The announcement followed his meeting with representatives of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association. (Distressingly, they didn’t express any concerns afterward.)

However, through a tweet, Pakistanis learned who actually holds the power in their country. And the real target – people who criticize the role of army on social media.

The military successfully muzzles print and broadcast news, and now it’s social media’s turn.

Restrictions on social media posts will not allow citizens to question the policies and actions of the military and make sure they are accountable to the people of Pakistan.

The government always tries to curb free speech but the ruling party should not forget that the state is the signatory to the human rights charter and its Article 19, which gives freedom of expression to all citizens, including freedom of critical expression.

Veengas is a Karachi-based journalist who focuses on human rights and political issues. She is the author of Pakistan’s Troubled Minorities (2016) and is currently on a six-month Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship in the US.