The state of surveillance

By Sana Saleem

24 October 2016

The Pakistani state is using terrorism as an excuse to curb freedom of speech.


Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

The hallways were riddled with bullets, blood stained the auditorium floors, the bodies of children were piled under benches across the auditorium. When the eight-hour-long siege at the Army Public School and Degree College, Peshawar ended, 145 people – 132 children, 10 staff members and three soldiers – had been killed by the attackers. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.

The very next day, on 17 December 2014, Pakistan’s political leadership gathered for a multi-party conference in Peshawar to formulate a plan to fight terrorism. Six days later, in a televised address to the country Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the 20-point ‘National Action Plan’ (NAP) to crackdown on terrorism in Pakistan. Sharif spoke slowly but adamantly “…this agreement is a defining moment for Pakistan,” he said, “we will eliminate terrorists from this country.”

Articles on Freedom of Expression
This article is from our final issue ‘Fact and Fiction’. The quarterly issue has articles on freedom of expression and collection of fiction from the Southasia. Other articles on freedom of expression include: 

Of Eco and Echoes – Salil Tripathi

The business of news – Sukumar Muralidharan

Freeing the fourth state – Tisaranee Gunasekara

Whose media is it anyway? – Neha Dixit

Web of Control – Sarah Eleazar

Chronicle of a death not foretold – Aunohita Mojumdar

The NAP was not Pakistan’s first attempt at a counter-terrorism policy. In May 2014, the National Internal Security Policy (NISP) had been presented to the Parliament. In fact, the NAP essentially rearticulated the goals and objectives of the NISP with some additions, including the establishment of military courts to fast-track terrorism trials and lifted the seven-year moratorium on executions. The NAP also revived the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) – an internal intelligence agency established “to curb the menace of terrorism”. Additionally, the NAP permitted the state to crackdown on hate-speech, and take legal action against newspapers, magazines, social media and “the internet” contributing to the spread of such speech.

In a paper for the Mackenzie Institute, a Canada-based security think-tank, terrorism expert Farhan Zahid states that neither the NAP, nor the NISP can be seen as facilitating “counter terrorism policy”, since they lack both clear policy guidelines and rules of engagements – basic criteria for an effective policy. Rather, they are rearrangements of security measures in response to growing terrorist threats and a “reaction to public outcry”. Before the NAP was adopted, there was no explanation provided nor any discussion on what constitutes “hate speech” or what could be framed as “contributing to hate speech”. This lack of definition has meant that the freedom of speech can be limited as and when the state sees fit. The wide-ranging powers were subsequently used against independent media and civil society. In a country already struggling with media freedom, the NAP made things worse. The broad generic definitions under the NAP could be widely interpreted to curb freedom of expression, especially on the internet, further circumscribing a space that was already facing challenges.

Closing walls

With around 34 million internet users in 2016, Pakistan has a growing online community. Yet the role of the internet as an open and accessible space for public discourse has repeatedly been challenged by state-driven censorship, propelled by the government and often in response to court orders. It is internet freedom that is most often subject to arbitrary restrictions. The techniques of control, moreover, are opaque, sometimes even to those implementing the bans.

In March 2007, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) – the government agency responsible for the establishment, operation and maintenance of telecommunications in the country – to filter blasphemous content “at all costs”.  As a result, the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) – the only provider of bandwidth to the country until 2009 – implemented a blanket ban on websites which used certain key words. The ensuing disruption affected sites including Yahoo, BBC, Google, CNN, and ESPN. Within days the ban was lifted and the government’s inability to censor online material in a focused and selective manner became evident. However, the government was quick to acquire more sophisticated technology to monitor, surveil and intercept content on telecommunication networks and the internet, a quest that it has pursued through the years.

In 2007, the Pakistan government engaged the services of Narus, an independent subsidiary of the Boeing Company of the US. Narus designs NarusInsight, a sophisticated supercomputer system based on Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which enables network control, has data-interception abilities and can track and target both internet and mobile users. Then in February 2012, in response to a Supreme Court order, the ICT Research & Development Fund of the Ministry of IT called for bids to implement a “URL-filtering system”. The technology would allow the government to block a list of up to 50 million URLs within or in less than one millisecond. The Supreme Court had issued suo moto notice to ban ‘obscene’ content after its website was defaced by hackers demanding the government block all pornographic content. In the face of strong opposition from civil society, academia, business associations, media and international human-rights groups, the Pakistani government announced that it was no longer moving forward with the plan. But it apparently did not drop its hunt for more sophisticated technology.

In 2013, a report by Citizen Lab, an independent research group based out of the University of Toronto, revealed PTCL was using the internet-filtering software Netsweeper, and confirmed the presence of FinFisher Command and Control servers operating from Pakistan. Netsweeper, commercially-available filtering software, advertises itself as an internet security tool for individuals and businesses to enable them to block specific content, but it is routinely used by governments to block content it finds uncomfortable. This filtering software uses keywords for censorship. This has resulted in some farcical results, including the blocking of Wikipedia pages on breast cancer in an attempt to crackdown on “porn”. Finfisher, on the other hand, is a targeted surveillance tool marketed exclusively for law enforcement. It allows the user to infect and remotely control computers or mobile phones allowing them to see the screen as seen by the user and to activate mic and camera without the subject’s knowledge. This complex web of surveillance and paranoia echoes the shackled world depicted by one of the Subcontinent’s greatest story tellers, Saadat Hasan Manto.

The terrorism card

In imposing all these restrictions on cyber space, the state continues to use the argument of curbing terrorism as its blanket justification. Evidence however points to the use of these laws to filter content the state finds distasteful – ranging from pornography and blasphemous material to political discussions, especially concerning Sindh, Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan and the Pakistani military.
In April 2013 the government blocked a music video released by the band Beyghairat Brigade within hours of its release online. The band, which uses satire to raise controversial issues, had mocked the military as sacred cows in a music video called Dhinak Dhinak.  The artists, who worked for a mainstream media news channels, had opted to release their songs online so that they could reach a wider audience without the fear of censorship. Facebook pages like ‘’ and ‘Taliban are zaliman’ (Taliban are cruel) which deal with secular content are also routinely taken down, while pages glorifying the murderer of a former governor continue to get attention from everybody except the authorities. A look at social media accounts on both Twitter and Facebook reveal that terrorist groups continue to propagate hate, with apparent ease.

Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of such methods, recent steps have further strengthened the government’s control over cyberspace while further diluting the protection of citizens against their misuse. In August 2016, the government introduced yet another controversial cybercrime law – the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, which contains even more vague language, criminalising various forms of speech online. PECB also criminalises whistle-blowing and may, in the future, force journalists to disclose their sources. Section 9 of the bill states, “the intent to glorify an offence and the person accused or convicted of a crime relating to terrorism” is in itself a crime which carries a penalty of five years and a fine of upto PKR 10 million rupees (USD 95,000) – or both. This means that activists rallying to free a convicted colleague or an innocent citizen would fall within the purview of this law. This creates a dangerous impetus towards self-censorship within civil society and media circles. For instance, starting a campaign for the release of tenant farmers in Okara district, who were held under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 for demanding the military give them their fair share of the land they have lived and worked on, would now be a punishable offence under this Act.

Since the introduction of NAP and PECB, the government has allegedly banned a few websites run by terror outfits but there has been no concerted effort made to block all the terrorist sites. When it has shut down websites run by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Taliban have been two steps ahead and they quickly emerge with new sites featuring the same content. Even if the government were able to completely take down terrorist content online, would it really impact the Taliban’s recruiting abilities? After all, the legal framework prior to NAP already gave the government significant space to go after miscreants. Although the state claims to have arrested around 2000 people for “hate speech”, the vast majority of them were booked under The Punjab Control of Loudspeakers (1965), regulating the use of loudspeakers. The Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) Sections 153-A already covers hate-speech, criminalises anyone who by word or signs promotes disharmony, enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups, or castes and communities.

There is also no clarity on which government agency, at the national level, is responsible for monitoring internet activities of militants. The National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes, a unit of Federal Investigation Agency, was supposedly involved in helping with the implementation of NAP. But without clear terms of reference, inadequate definition or criteria for hate speech, and little support of similar units at a provincial level, they are mostly toothless. Criminalising speech without taking into account the nature of social networks or the speaker’s intentions shows how loosely-drafted policies can criminalise the very people it seeks to protect.

NAP and minorities

It is not just in the digital arena that the state has been selective in its enforcement of NAP and anti-terrorism legislation. Though the NAP has specific clauses criminalising sectarian violence, violence against minorities continues with impunity. In 2014, Pakistan’s Supreme Court called attention to the state’s failure to protect religious minorities. The court also said that “preventive measures” had not been taken to better protect minorities. The court issued directives to the government on ways in which it could respond to increasing attacks on minorities. For a start, the state could work on ensuring that school curricula promote “a culture of social and religious tolerance”, the court said. It also recommended a national council for the protection of minorities and a special police force to protect places of worship. Most importantly, it emphasised that prompt action must be taken against individuals or groups involved in any anti-minority violence.

Yet violence against minorities continues with impunity, an example being the November 2015 attack on an Ahmadiya mosque in Jhelum, a town in Punjab province, which was set on fire. While the NAP’s purported mandate to take effective steps against sectarian violence and the directions from the Supreme Court have largely been ignored, minorities have found themselves at the receiving end of repressive state mechanism which uses these very laws against them.

Rizwan Haider, a 25-year-old Shia Muslim, was sentenced to 13 years in prison by an anti-terrorism court for liking a Facebook post critical of Sunni Islam, something authorities said promoted “sectarian hatred on Facebook”. Haider’s lawyer asserted that he had only ‘liked’ the post and did not share or propagate the content. The distinction is important in the context of the current laws governing the limits of free expression and how Pakistan’s judiciary interprets such instances.

Plan of action

The NAP is seen as a legitimate state reaction to one of Pakistan’s most haunting national tragedies; the ruthless massacre of innocent children. Within a year, the Pakistan army had already produced a song that would reimagine the lost children as heroes in the fight against terror. The song, reminding us that “our enemy” was a weak one that attacks children, was telecast on screens across the country repeatedly with the call not to let the “sacrifices of our children” go in vain. This helped suppress any opposition to the army’s anti-terrorism tactics and dissenting voices that demanded more transparency in military courts, or called for tightening the language of terrorism laws, risked being labelled unfeeling.

NAP’s attempt to stop the glorification of the jihadists and to use this tragedy to increase its power of surveillance is not new. The formula has been employed time and again and has also repeatedly failed. After the 11 September attacks, the Pakistan government imposed a ban on 22 magazines. The ban only lasted for a few weeks and the publications made their ways to newsstands under new or different names. Banned outfits too often rebrand and re-launch under different names and continue to disperse their message, sometimes even holding public meetings in the country’s capital, drawing a crowd of thousands.

It’s deeply worrying that the NAP and PECB have placed the Pakistani media between a rock and a hard place. News channels now run the risk of facing military repression should they choose to air statements from the different Taliban factions. However, their inability to do so makes them targets for the Taliban who are angry at the media blackout. Within a year of the NAP being adopted, Zaman Mehsud, a reporter for the Urdu daily Umat, was murdered. His fault? He had been writing against the Taliban. Tehreek-e-Taliban factions threatened journalists with severe consequences if they did not get the right coverage. The Taliban commander Qari Saif Ullah Saif, after claiming responsibility for Mehsud’s murder, threatened other journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa saying, “we have them on our hit list and we will target them soon.” An email sent to journalists working in the tribal areas read “If media is not providing proper coverage to the ‘mujahideen’ [holy warriors], our response will be severe in upcoming days… be prepared”.

While on one hand the journalists faced the ire of terrorists, the establishment has been policing journalists for giving “too much” coverage to terrorists with accusations of “sensationalising terror attacks” to “spread panic”. There are also allegations that the state is behind some of the attacks on journalists it does not like. In the aftermath of the 2014 attack on veteran journalist Hamid Mir, one of the country’s most prominent talk-show hosts, his employer GEO Television aired the statements of Mir’s distressed brother accusing ISI’s chief of being involved in the attack citing alleged threats in the past. Rather than investigating these allegations, it resulted in an onslaught of minute-by-minute coverage by numerous media channels criticising GEO and its parent company JANG for advancing an ‘anti-Pakistan’ agenda. Instead of calling GEO’s editorial policy into question and having a more nuanced debate on media ethics, the Pakistani airwaves were consumed with jingoism. Veteran reporter Matiullah Jan, amongst others, openly criticised media channels for conducting such an elaborate campaign of victim-blaming and called it an attempt by the mainstream media to curry favour from the military.

So has NAP really served its purpose? In the aftermath of the August 2016 Quetta bombing, which wiped out an entire generation of lawyers, Prime Minister Sharif convened a meeting of the top military and civilian brass to “review” the progress made under NAP. The fact that such a strategic attack was funded, communicated about, and carried out, crippling the only recourse to justice in an already torn Balochistan, is testament that current “counter-terrorism measures” are  ineffective and possibly misguided.

Blocking access to content, especially on the internet where there are a million ways to get around censorship, is a temporary fix. If the issue is radicalisation, we need more effective counter-radicalisation measures rather than of issuing bans that do nothing to reverse the impact of years of indoctrination. Without corresponding actions in the offline world, the state’s supposed crackdown on extremism, online, will be a crippled policy at best and criminalise free speech at worst.

~ Sana Saleem is a writer for 48hills and the Editor (Pakistan) for Global Voices. She is a member of the advisory board for the courage Foundation and co-founder of Karachi-based, anti-censorship group ‘Bolo Bhi’. 


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