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On Saturday, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested 5 social media activists and brought them in for questioning. The 5 individuals were linked with social media accounts which had been criticizing the government and the Armed forces. Interestingly, it was the counter-terrorism wing rather than the cyber-crime wing which had conducted this operation.

FIA has identified several individuals that it alleges are involved in an “organized” campaign against the country’s armed forces on social media.

“We have identified dozens of suspects involved in running an organized campaign on social media against the Pakistan Army. We have taken some of them into custody for interrogation,”

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has pledged to fight against what they call the misuse of the cybercrime bill and suppression of free speech on an institutional scale. They have even promised to support activists from the ruling party who have been arrested in this roundup.

Chaudhry Nisar’s directive

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan initiated this crackdown a week ago after he took notice of online criticism of the armed forces following the May 10 announcement by the Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s media affairs wing, of the withdrawal of a tweet that “rejected” the government notification of the findings of a body, set up to investigate the Dawn Leaks scandal.

Read More: PTI protests Govt.’s crackdown on social media activists

“We have identified dozens of suspects involved in running an organized campaign on social media against the Pakistan Army. We have taken some of them into custody for interrogation,” an FIA official said on Sunday.

The official said the government had ordered FIA’s Counterterrorism Department (CTD) to help trace the “real culprits” of this campaign. “The CTD is also helping us trace those running an anti-military campaign on social media,” he said.

“We have taken some suspects into custody, but at this stage, we cannot disclose their identities. No FIR has been registered against anyone detained in the crackdown so far,” the official said.

He clarified that individuals would be charged only after a detailed forensic analysis of their social media accounts because it had become common for users to employ fake identities and post in other people’s name.

On Sunday PTI vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi met the detained activists belonging to his party, as well as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and assured them of his party’s full support.

The official clarified that FIA was “not targeting those posting comments or images unintentionally or without any vested interest”.

 

Support from the Opposition

The crackdown has targeted activists from across the whole political spectrum. Opposition party PTI has vowed that it will support all those who are being persecuted even if they belong to a rival party.

On Saturday, an FIA team arrested Dr. Faisal Ranjha — a vocal supporter of the ruling party — into custody from Kamoke near Gujranwala over charges of posting anti-military material on social media and shifted him to its headquarters in Islamabad.

He was detained with other party activists belonging to the PTI. Sources said that all those detained had been released after questioning, but complaints had been registered against them.

On Sunday PTI vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi met the detained activists belonging to his party, as well as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and assured them of his party’s full support.

The PTI also announced that it would file a petition before the Islamabad High Court (IHC) against the “illegal actions” being taken by the government against political workers and social media activists.

PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry has said his party would stand by all political and social media activists, irrespective of political affiliations since the party believed in the right to freedom of expression.

“It is disturbing that in a short span of time nearly 1,000 cases had been registered against social media platforms. In addition, provisions of the cybercrime legislation have been arbitrarily interpreted to impose new restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in the name of national security,”

“The PTI will support and fight for every social media activist and political worker, be they from the PPP or the PML-N,” Mr. Chaudhry declared. He said the party would hold a demonstration outside the National Press Club today (Monday) against the FIA’s actions.

Sources privy to the internal situation of PML-N have said that there was great resentment within the party over the government’s policy to crack down on social media activists. Some party leaders are planning to raise the issue with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif upon his return from Saudi Arabia, they said.

Read More: Is Siasat.pk banning part of an Orwellian control by the Government?

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has called the suppression of social media “undemocratic, against the Constitution and counterproductive”.

PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said in a statement that the increasing abuse of the cybercrime law by the state was a matter of serious concern and must be stopped. Adding that the misuse and overuse of blanket orders, issued last week by the interior ministry to take action against social media users in the name of national security, was not acceptable.

“It is disturbing that in a short span of time nearly 1,000 cases had been registered against social media platforms. In addition, provisions of the cybercrime legislation have been arbitrarily interpreted to impose new restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in the name of national security,” he said.

“Publicly voicing concerns about the national security narrative of the state is not undermining security. On the contrary, presenting alternate opinions strengthens national security and should be welcomed,” he said.

In his orders, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar had stated that “disrespecting the Pakistan Army and its officials under the guise of freedom of expression will not be tolerated”.

He had ordered severe action against anyone found involved in the malicious campaign, irrespective of their political leaning or profession.

Soon after the minister’s directive, the FIA swung into action and detained a number of suspected people for their alleged involvement in criticizing the armed forces through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Read More: Pakistan: Big Brother is watching you!

However, an FIA official said that its cybercrime wing needed modern equipment to deal with such offences.

“There is also a need to set up a special tribunal to exclusively hear cases related to cybercrime. International linkages for information-sharing regarding cyber security should be established and international covenants and agreements for cooperation in combating cybercrime should be signed. Procurement strategies for secure and resilient hardware and software products should be developed to deal with the issue,” the official said, adding the interior ministry would have to pay attention in this regard.

 

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