Threats, arrests, blocked accounts and restricted posts - Big Brother is
watching more closely than ever in Pakistan as authorities accelerate efforts
to censor social networks, further reducing an already shrunken space for
dissent. In the past 18 months, a slew of journalists, activists, and
government opponents - both at home and overseas - have faced intimidation or
the threat of legal action for their online posts. Censorship is already rife
among Pakistan's mainstream media, with the Committee to Protect Journalists
noting last year that the military had "quietly but effectively"
imposed strict limits on the scope of general news reporting.

Platforms such as
Facebook and Twitter were regarded as the last holdouts of dissenting voices,
but now that has changed. In February, authorities announced the creation of a
new enforcement arm to root out social media users accused of spreading
"hate speech and violence" as part of the crackdown. Gul Bukhari, a
columnist and sometime government critic who was briefly abducted by
unidentified men last year, said the assault on social media was carefully
organized and coordinated. "It is the last frontier they try to
conquer," Bukhari explained.

Silence dissent

Rizwan-ur-Rehman Razi was among the people targeted. He was arrested in
February at home in the eastern city of Lahore for publishing "defamatory
and obnoxious" content against the state. A few days earlier, he had
criticized extra-judicial executions allegedly committed by the security
forces, according to a copy of his tweets seen by AFP. Released after two
nights, he has not tweeted since, and his posts have been deleted.

The net cast by
the crackdown is a wide one, with Shahzad Ahmad, director of the digital
security NGO Bytes for All, pointing to the harassment of civil rights
activists, the political opposition, and bloggers. According to Annie Zaman, an
expert on cyber-censorship in Pakistan, this is made possible by an all-encompassing
2016 law that prohibits online posts that are deemed to compromise state
security or offend anything from "the glory of Islam" to non-defined
notions of "decency and morality". "Because this law is vague,
it gave more space to the authorities to censor online," Zaman said.
Offenders can face up to 14 years in prison.

The military
signalled its involvement in the campaign as early as June last year, when
spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor boasted of the capacity to monitor social
media accounts during a televised press conference. In a clear warning, Ghafoor
briefly showed an image of what appeared to be specific Twitter handles and
names. Facebook and Twitter transparency reports show the crackdown was already
well underway last year, with a huge spike in requests by the Pakistani
government seeking to censor online activity.

restricted more content in Pakistan than in any other country in the first six
months of 2018, according to its transparency figures from that time period,
which are the most recently available. The social media giant said it
restricted the availability of 2,203 pieces of content in total - a seven-fold
jump from the previous six months. All but 87 of the items had been reported by
the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority "as allegedly violating local
laws prohibiting blasphemy, anti-judiciary content, and condemnation of the
country's independence," it said. The Pakistan Telecommunications
Authority did not respond to requests for comment.


Twitter figures
for the same time period showed a similar trend, with requests to remove
content from 3,004 accounts in Pakistan compared to 674 in the second half of
2017. A Twitter spokesman said the vast majority of the requests had come from
the government, and stressed that the company had acquiesced to none of them.
"The authorities are no longer hiding their agenda (or policy) to silence
internet-mediated dissent," said Rabia Mehmood, a researcher for Amnesty
International. "While the current censorship is exceptionally intense,
over the years, one message has been consistent that criticism of policies of
the Pakistan military will not be tolerated."

Even those
posting on social media from overseas have found themselves targeted. Twitter
routinely sends out a notice to users notifying them when the company receives
complaints that their posts have violated a country's laws. AFP has found
dozens of users who received such a message warning they had violated Pakistani
laws - including 11 who had tweeted from beyond Pakistan's borders, in
countries such as Australia, the US and Canada. The requests represent "a
government censor overstepping jurisdiction boundaries", said Jillian
York, an expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an American NGO. -