Catholics outraged by Pakistan's social media crackdown
Religious minorities can be easily targeted given the current restrictions, says church official
A file image of a Pakistani man browsing the internet at a cyber cafe in Karachi. Pakistan's government is cracking down on people who criticize the country's military via social media. (Photo by Asif Hassan/AFP FILES)
Pakistan has stepped up its controversial crackdown on social media users running an "organized" campaign against the country's armed forces.
The crackdown, rejected by church activists, opposition politicians and rights groups, was announced by two ministers. In the first statement on May 13, Marriyum Aurangzeb, the Minister of State for Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage, asked social media users to refrain from negative propaganda against the state lest they be punished under the nation's Cyber Crime Law.
"Those, who are using social media for slanderous and negative propaganda against constitutional state institutions are warned to desist. All suspicious accounts being used for propaganda are under strict surveillance and action will be taken against users," Aurangzeb said.
A day later, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan ordered the Federal Investigation Agency to take action against people criticizing the army on social media.
"Under the constitution, criticism against security forces and matters of national security is disallowed. Disrespect of the Pakistan Army or its officials is unacceptable in the name of freedom of expression. Targeting the country's disciplined and respected organizations for particular objectives is highly regrettable," Nisar said in a statement.
An official from the agency told ucanews.com that the Counter-Terrorism Department of the agency was handed the task of tracking down social media users who were "maligning" the army. Initially, a list of 200 was shortlisted including journalists, bloggers and opposition workers.
Emmanuel Neno, executive secretary of the Pakistani bishops' Catechetical Commission, condemned the ongoing arrests of social media activists.
"This is a dangerous situation. Harassing people in the name of the army will only spread more negativity against state institutions. The Cyber Crime law has become a tool to suppress political rivals. The space is shrinking for alternative opinion and it will only cause more unrest in the society," said Neno who runs the church's only Facebook page in Urdu.
"I rarely accept friend requests as I do not know the background of other Facebook users. Religious minorities can be easily targeted given the current restrictions. People are being implicated in blasphemy cases just for sharing a message on social media. Technology has become dangerous," he said.
Father Nasir William, director of the Commission for Social Communications in Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese, rejected the restrictions.
"People cannot be forced into silence. Putting a ban on one internet platform produces mirror sites," he told ucanews.com.
In the past six months, Father William organized 10 media awareness seminars for students and church workers in his diocese that has been affected by a Taliban insurgency for more than a decade.
"Both activists and family members need awareness about the proper use of social media. The flood of views being expressed on it has blurred the boundary between right and wrong. Its misuse can result in moral evils in society," he said.
Pakistan's independent rights commission (HRCP) voiced alarm over arbitrary curbs on freedom of expression, a climate of intimidation and the authorities' intent to act against any perceived slight to the armed forces.
"HRCP notes with growing concern the prevailing climate with regard to freedom of expression. We are particularly alarmed by the two federal ministers' statements," the commission said on May 19.
"According to the information submitted in parliament this week, since the present government came to power, the cybercrime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency has registered nearly 900 cases," their statement added.
The latest crackdown comes three months after five liberal bloggers and activists were rounded up by unknown people and tortured. A campaign was subsequently launched on social media to declare them blasphemers.
After being released a month later, all of them moved abroad fearing for their safety following the blasphemy allegations. Waqass Goraya, one of the five activists, who now lives in Netherlands, told the BBC he was detained by agencies linked to the military and tortured.
Pakistan has been ranked one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and human rights activists, according to International Federation of Journalists.