Freedom of expression

Bloggers at high risk in Pakistan

The military itself is part of the threat to free speech
Photo: kami rao

Early in January 2017, well-known Pakistani activist, blogger and academic Salman Haider was nabbed in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Within a short time, at least four other social media activists also went missing. Around three weeks later, Haider and two other activists were released. It’s not known who abducted them, but the disappearances point to an existing pattern whereby those critical of the state, especially the army and the intelligence agencies, are kidnapped without any trace.

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Even if there is no official recognition, the scale, the manner in which these acts are carried out and the profiles of the abducted point to one institution: the army. It has been well documented that the army is behind most disappearances in Pakistan, and while this tactic is nothing new, the kidnappings are a sign of the army’s increasing hold over the country, especially since 2014.

In September 2014, following extra-parliamentary protests by one of the country’s main opposition parties against the sitting prime minister of Pakistan, it appeared to many that a military coup was all but inevitable and predicted that the country would soon go through a period of repression. But a conventional coup didn’t take place, and the elected government stayed in power. What happened instead was a virtual coup: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sidelined and the army took over decision making on most important issues.

Repression also intensified. Though there was always a need for military action against the Taliban, the army took the opportunity afforded to it after the Taliban’s Peshawar school massacres to extend its operations beyond the targeted and calculated use of force against the militants. Though it had long been the dominant player in the country’s affairs, he army had never been able to take control of the country so easily, this time without even having to remove the incumbent government from office. This point is particularly important since this is the longest stretch for a civilian government in Pakistani history — nine years and counting.

The army wanted support from the political parties for a full-fledged military operation against the Taliban, but this magnanimity isn’t worth too much lauding. Getting civilian approval was not about the army respecting parliament but about the generals making sure that nobody veered off in a different direction.

Further evidence that the government was totally powerless came when the army sought and received approval to try terrorism suspects in military courts. Numerous suspects were tried in these courts without recourse to justice, and several were sentenced to death, but the public does not know who they were and whether they actually committed the crimes they were accused of. Scores of people from tribal areas are picked up by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and the public knows anything about their whereabouts. In the name of fighting terrorism and protecting national interests, many have been swept under the rug. And who dares point fingers at the army when it is defending the country from those seeking to destroy it?

Balochistan’s misfortune

Counterterrorism operations and justifying narratives were expanded to Balochistan as well. While there has been a brutal military operation in Pakistan’s most resource-rich province since the mid-2000s, the renewed impetus to fight enemies of the state following the Peshawar attacks gave a new, glossy cover of legitimacy to counterinsurgency in Balochistan. No difference remained between the jihadi Taliban and Baloch nationalists, including legal Baloch political parties and student groups, rightfully demanding rights that have long been denied them.

There’s another dimension to army involvement in Balochistan. Recently, China announced that it will invest around $50 billion in infrastructure and economic projects as part of its push to connect its southern province with the port city of Gwadar in Balochistan. An investment of this magnitude requires security guarantees, and the army stepped in to offer protection. In doing so, the army not only maintained its image as the guardian of the country, but also presented itself as a force for economic development in the country’s most neglected province.

Balochistan also had the misfortune of becoming a pawn for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the midst of all these troubles. By declaring his sympathies for the Baloch cause and pointing out Pakistan’s human rights violations, Modi played right into the hands of the army. The army’s narrative has always framed Baloch nationalists and separatists as part of the Indian conspiracy to destroy Pakistan. With Modi’s declaration, the Pakistani establishment needed no further proof. An anti-Indian element was added to the operation in Balochistan. Who dare stop the army from going after those who seek to break up Pakistan? Who dare ask the army the whereabouts of the approximately 20,000 Baloch who have been disappeared by the intelligence agencies?

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, was never going to escape the army’s wrath either. What began as a counterterrorism effort against the Taliban and other militant groups after the Peshawar attacks turned into an intense crackdown on the city’ss most important political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

Led by paramilitary forces legally accountable to no one, the operation targeted the party’s workers, supporters and leaders. Countless people were kidnapped and disappeared. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement was also accused of receiving funding and support from Indian intelligence agencies. Who dare stop the army juggernaut from fighting Indian-supported groups across the country? Who dare point out that for more than half a decade prior to this operation, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement was allied with the army, during which time the party committed some of its worst crimes?

Kidnapping and disappearing people with no accountability has thus been a modus operandi of the army as it imposes its authority on the country. But the tale took a new twist with the disappearance of Salman Haider and the four other bloggers. It’s an ominous sign that online critique is no longer safe.

Pro-army social media pages and bots are accusing the five missing men of promoting anti-army, anti-Pakistan, and anti-Islam views on their blogs. While the bloggers have criticized the army and religious fundamentalists, their positions cannot accurately be described as anti-islam. But when one is accused of such things, it becomes impossible to exonerate oneself. As in most other cases, the civilian government is unable to provide protection to its citizens. In fact, the government doesn’t even have moral grounds to demand that the bloggers be recovered; last year, it passed the draconian Cyber Crime Bill, which criminalizes anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam viewpoints.

What has happened to the bloggers was set in motion by the army a couple of years ago. The most dangerous part is that despite all these egregious violations of law and human rights, the army retains public support in Pakistan’s heartland of Punjab, from which it draws most of its recruits. General Raheel Sharif, who oversaw the armed forces between 2013 to 2016, is emblematic of the army’s resurgence, which began with his coming to power and after his decision to face the Taliban with the full force of a military operation. This man, who has become as revered as Pakistan’s founding fathers, leaves behind a troubling legacy in the country: he recently said that human rights and freedom of speech are impediments to counterterrorism.

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