Published On: Wed, Jan 11th, 2017

Pakistani Bloggers “Disappeared”

nsnbc : Samar Abbas, the prominent social activist and head of the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan “went missing” in Islamabad on January 7, 2017. Four others went missing within a week. Pakistan is one of the world’s leading countries when it comes to violence and killings of journalists. The situation for bloggers in Pakistan is even worse. Without media organizations to back them, several Pakistani bloggers have simply vanished, prompting international rights organizations and independent media to respond.

alexskopje/shutterstock

alexskopje/shutterstock

Samar Abbas went missing” in Islamabad on January 7, 2017 and is feared to have been abducted. Rights organizations and family members were reportedly stonewalled by government authorities when the made inquiries into Abbas’ “disappearance”.  However, the “disappearance” of Abbas is no isolated incident. Four other men also disappeared, including Salman Haider, a well-known poet and academic, and bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer. The four went missing or were taken away from different cities between January 4 and January 7, 2017.

Common denominators are that all four were vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, all used the internet to disseminate their views; all disappeared within a few days, suggesting a concerted campaign aimed at targeting dissident bloggers. Moreover, their near-simultaneous disappearance has led to suspicions about possible government involvement; or rather the involvement of either intelligence services or rogue networks within Pakistan’s intelligence services.

On January 7, 2017 Pakistani Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan directed police to speed up efforts to locate Salman Haider. Pakistani government authorities claim they are neither holding Haider not any of the other disappeared men while stressing that “a broader effort is required” to uncover the whereabouts of the disappeared.

Waqas Goraya, an anthropologist who blogged on issues of religious freedom, and Aasim Saeed, a blogger and an administrator of a Facebook page hosting progressive views critical of religious extremists and Pakistan’s security policies, were reported missing from Wapda Town, Lahore, on January 4, 2017. Salman Haider, a poet and professor at Fatima Jinnah Women University, went missing on the evening of January 6, 2017. His wife reportedly received a text message telling her to pick Salman’s car from Koral Chowk, Islamabad. The family has not heard from Salman or the abductors since. On January 7, 2017unidentified men took away Ahmad Raza Naseer, a blogger running a Facebook page broadcasting secular, progressive views, from his family’s shop in Sheikhupura, Punjab.

The disappearances of all of the above were followed by a slurry of social media messages that accused them of “blasphemy” and other crimes, adding additional concerns about their security. Pakistani  journalists are according to many colleagues within the media “an endangered species”. Bloggers, who have no media organizations to back them are even more endangered.

In August 2016, the Pakistani government enacted a vague and overbroad cybercrimes law that threatens rights of privacy and freedom of expression. The law includes provisions that allow the government to censor online content, criminalize internet user activity, and access internet users’ data without judicial review.

  • Article 9 criminalizes anyone who “prepares or disseminates” any type of electronic communication with the intent to praise a person simply “accused of a crime,” or to “advance religious, ethnic or sectarian hatred,” as well as the more conventional intent to praise terrorism or proscribed organizations. The ambiguity of these categories of “glorification” invites abusive interpretation; for example, someone could be prosecuted for merely blogging about persons arrested, in violation of freedom of expression and the presumption of innocence.
  • Article 10 defines “Cyber-terrorism” as including “glorification” of crime (article 9 above) or unauthorized access to, copying, or transmission of “critical” information with intent to create a sense of fear or insecurity in the government or the public or to advance religious, ethnic, or sectarian hatred. These vague definitions create a serious potential threat to whistleblowers who may seek to publicly reveal intelligence that shows abuses by government officials or agencies.
  • Article 28 gives an “authorized officer” the unilateral and unchecked power to order the provision of data or the preservation of data whenever the officer believes it is “reasonably required for the purposes of a criminal investigation” and there is risk the data may be later inaccessible. While the authorized officer is required to notify a court of such requests, the provision does not require the court to examine the legitimacy of the request or impose any particular safeguards for rights. When combined with expansive data retention requirements under article 29, this article raises serious concerns about unrestrained government access to private communications and chilling of the freedom of expression and association.
  • Article 34 enables broad government powers of censorship, including authorizing blocking or removing online content if it considers it “necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act.” The bill does not require an approval from a court, and undermines any ability to safeguard against misuse of the provision. This article’s sweeping scope violates freedom of expression and could be used to purge virtually anything the government doesn’t like.

Pakistan’s security establishment has a long history of intimidating critics. Pakistani and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have extensively documented the intimidation, torture, enforced disappearances, and killings of activists and journalists. The Taliban and other armed groups have also threatened media outlets and targeted journalists and activists for their work.

In April 2015, prominent rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was killed by militants. The principal planner of her assassination later said that he killed her because, “she was generally promoting liberal, secular values.” In May 2014, Rashid Rehman, a human rights activist and lawyer, was assassinated by militants in an apparent reprisal for his willingness to represent people charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In April 2014, unidentified gunmen attacked Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most prominent television anchors in Karachi. Mir survived the attack, and Jang/Geo – his employer and the country’s largest media conglomerate – accused the director general of the government’s powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency of involvement in the incident.

Saleem Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and for Adnkronos International, the Italian news agency, disappeared from central Islamabad on the evening of May 29, 2011. Shahzad’s body, bearing visible signs of torture, was discovered two days later near Mandi Bahauddin, 80 miles southeast of the capital.

CH/L & F/AK – nsnbc 11.01.2017

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