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OPINION: Policing the web in Pakistan

In order for a secret to remain a secret, everyone who knows it must agree – or be forced – not to tell others. A single whistleblower has the potential to overturn the efforts of dozens of other people who may be trying to keep something a secret.

In Pakistan, it is the activities of the military – especially its actions in the regions of FATA and Balochistan – that are kept a tightly-held secret. What goes in FATA & Balochistan stays in FATA & Balochistan.

A number of tools have been employed to main the secret and control the narrative. The most prominent include controlling physical access to the regions, and offering carrots and sticks to journalists and media owners.

Controlling physical access is relatively easy. A vast network of security checkposts makes it near impossible for journalists to visit these regions without the knowledge and permission of military authorities. And while just visiting FATA & Balochistan is difficult enough, doing journalism independently and without the explicit approval  of the authorities can land you in serious trouble. This is enough to prevent most outside journalists from even trying to access these areas independently. Any journalist that does get permission are usually given a guided tour embedded with the military, rather than be allowed to roam freely.

This means that the only entity that has access to the region, and that can provide news about what is happening inside it is the military. The military’s propaganda agency, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) issues regular press releases about the number of terrorists it has killed, and because there is no way to verify it independently, most media outlets run the ISPR news as fact.

The carrots and sticks for journalists and media owners are numerous. The carrots include preferential treatment, exclusive interviews and news “leaks” from the military, as well as junkets and embedded tours. The sticks include threatening late-night phone calls, violent attacks, enforced abductions, murder (such as was the fate of Saleem Shahzad), or unofficial bans on an entire media group, as happened to the Jang/Geo group recently.

In recent years, the Internet and social media has played an increasingly important role in bypassing the carrots, sticks and access restrictions. Individuals and groups – both anonymous and identified – living in the conflict zones are able to record and share news without needing to rely on traditional media outlets. They are the whistleblowers of the Pakistani state’s (read military) open and unspoken secrets.

Of course, the state quickly came around and started to respond – largely by crude means of censorship. In the past, the Pakistani government has blocked Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Blogger and scores of websites because of political and religious content. Dozens of websites run by Baloch nationalist and separatist have and remain blocked. Even the was blocked in 2011 after it published an article about Pakistan’s “insane military spending”. The technology that Pakistan’s government uses to carry out its mass web censorship is provided by a Canadian software company called Netsweeper.

As social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube became increasingly popular, it became untenable for the government to block these sites entirely. And it was technically impossible for the Pakistani government to unilaterally any single page or account on any of these sites after they adopted SSL/TLS encryption. The Pakistani government has to make requests to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to block individual sites, which they can choose to carry out at their discretion.

In some cases, such as Facebook, the social media companies have been all too compliant. Facebook pages that have been blocked in the past, presumably at the request of the Pakistani government, include that of the secular Leftist rock band called Laal that has campaigned against the Taliban and religious extremism, as well as a page called “Beautiful FATA” that advocated for the rights under the Pakistani constitution to be extended to the FATA region. In April 2016, a Leftist activist’s personal account was blocked by Facebook for 72 hours after he shared posts critical of the military crackdown on peasant farmers in Okara peacefully seeking ownership rights on the land they have tilled for decades.

Over the past 2 years, a number of social media users have either been forcibly abducted or arrested under the recently-passed Draconian cybercrime law for posts critical of the military.

Just weeks ago, the Twitter account of FATA activist Manzoor Pashteen was temporarily blocked. Pashteen is the leader of a newly emerged popular movement for Pashtun rights, who has openly spoken about the apparent collusion between the military and the Taliban. The movement – called the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) – has relied almost entirely on social media to mobilise people as there has been a near blanket ban on the PTM on mainstream media outlets (widely believed to be due to military pressure).

In parts of FATA and Balochistan, access to the Internet and cellular services is sporadic or expensive. This may because it is not profitable for telecom companies to expand their network in these regions, but it does nonetheless also conveniently limit the use of social media there. At a PTM inspired rally in South Waziristan last week, hundreds of local youth demanded the provision of 3G cellular services. Their slogan was “We need 3G internet, not G3 guns”.

Despite the fact that it is relatively difficult for the government to control on information on social media, its impact on those who hold power has still remained limited. Social media has allowed for sensitive news to be quickly shared within like-minded circles, but its impact on the mainstream narrative, largely driven by tradition media outlets, has not been huge. In the case of PTM, they have managed to successfully rally masses of FATA, Pashtun and progressive groups through social media, but have not been able to counter the fierce state-backed propaganda against them on traditional outlets.

Technology has its limits. It can serve as a useful and essential catalyst for mass movement, but it can not be the basis for a mass movement. More ominously, as we have already started seeing, technology and social media have the equal potential to be exploited by those in power to maintain the status quo.

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