Browsing virtual worlds while tip-toeing through real minefields

The outgoing year presented further grisly reminders that the internet in Pakistan is still ‘not free’

Gibran Ashraf January 03, 2018

KARACHI: The internet is fast becoming a daily necessity, integrating itself into our daily routines – even for the times when we may not even want it to. For what was once considered a virtual world, it is increasingly having real consequences.

The outgoing year reminded Pakistanis just how some of those consequences could be.

The year began in an ominous fashion. A handful of bloggers – who found refuge in cyberspace to voice opinions which they felt they could not in the real world – had gone missing.

Accused of posting blasphemous content, the courts were moved to trace these men out. While four of them returned home a few weeks later – with some immediately realising that their real-world safety was too compromised in Pakistan due to their actions online.

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One of these bloggers, Samar Abbas, remains missing till date.

The year ended on a similar note with peace activist Raza Khan reported missing from Lahore for advocating reconciliation between arch-rivals Pakistan and India.

In the midst of these disappearances, there were far more gruesome reminders that what you post online can exact a very high real price. In April, some students at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan attacked and brutally killed fellow student Mashal Khan on allegations of posting blasphemous content on social media – networks which connect virtually people in the real world.

Forgotten amongst these was the curious case of Naila Rind, a 22-year-old student at Sindh University who had committed suicide after the prime suspect had allegedly threatened to post compromising pictures of her on the internet.

The Freedom on the Net report for 2017 noted that Pakistan was “not free” in terms of online activity for a sixth consecutive year, keeping it firmly rooted among the 10 countries with the least freedom on the internet. The Internet Freedom Status for 2017, the report noted, has in fact worsened for Pakistan from that in 2016, slipping down two base points to 71, down from 69 – a score maintained over the past four years.

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To make matters worse, the government’s impulse to shut down internet connections and block social media sites at the first sign of trouble continued.

While mostly centred around specific days such as Muharram, the government’s itch to block social media was seen at the height of the three-week-long protest in the capital by members of the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allay (TLYR).

Combining the potential of third and fourth generation (3/4 G) internet connectivity and increasing the ability of social media applications to broadcast live over the internet, the TLYR used it to tell the world, in real time, its point of view on the protest. As police officers moved in on November 25 and 26, the government pulled the plug on sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and DailyMotion. Even the messaging application WhatsApp saw some blocking. It was coupled with blocking of news websites and sites which live-stream news television channels online.

The government also moved to block the encrypted messaging service Telegram in the country.

Some areas of the country, though, remain in connectivity blackout, particularly the militancy-affected Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the latest blackout was imposed in June 2016 and remains in place to date.

The year, though, saw some good news on the technology front.

Pakistan’s internet penetration grew a little to 48.77 million people, covering 23.5 per cent of the population. Moreover, the government also approved moves to go ahead with auctioning the 3-G and 4-G spectrums in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan and the Himalayan region of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

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“The internet and technology landscape in Pakistan is rapidly shrinking and increasingly becoming life-threatening due to wrongly placed priorities and mistaken approaches of the state,” said Shahzad Ahmad, the country director Bytes4All – a digital rights and advocacy organisation.

“A draconian policy regime is killing the opportunities and potential which information and communication technologies present for the socio-economic well-being of the citizens,” he said.

He added that the crackdown on political expression was undermining the nascent democracy in the country.

Cyber armies are being nurtured which are spreading a reign of terror and a climate of fear and hate all over the internet with complete impunity, Ahmad said, noting that vast swathes of the country including places such as G-B, Fata, Balochistan and southern Punjab are still without real access.

Digital right's activist Nighat Dad believes the crackdown on dissent by multiple actors “not only affects our idea of a free space but also kills the purpose of having space which is not bound by borders”.

“The list of challenges that I can foresee is vast and will keep us on our toes all the time, but I'm optimistic that together we'll make everything better for the people of Pakistan. Not at once, but we'll get there eventually," said Dad, Digital Rights Foundation’s Executive Director.


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