As if threats from the authorities against press freedom and freedom of expression in Pakistan were not enough, online nationalist vigilantes are also on the pry against journalists critical of the government.
On the eve of 5 July, #ArrestAntiPakJournalists trended on Twitter with over 28,000 tweets shared within few hours. The hashtag went viral soon after a Twitter account named Team #IK_Warriors posted a tweet calling for the arrest of journalists belonging to what they described as ”the pro-Indian, anti-Pak media group”. The tweet which called on others to join the campaign was accompanied by a photo of a list of journalists to be targeted.
The tweets were mainly targeting journalists who criticize the government and the military. Pakistan has a one-year-old government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician. Khan's critics accuse him of being hand-picked by the military known as ‘fauj’. He is also known as ‘ladla’ or favorite of the military establishment.
IK is an abbreviation for his full name, Imran Khan. The accounts @IK_Warrior and @IK_Warriors have the picture of Khan and the logo of the ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf or PTI. “We are standing for the truth and right [sic]”, the bio of the @IK_Warriors account reads.
According to the Digital Rights Monitor that investigated the accounts behind the hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists:
Hateful and inciteful campaigns targeting journalists, writers, and political opponents have become a common occurrence on digital platforms, especially Twitter. Despite assurances and actions by platforms, the human-bot accounts (often fake, and manned by humans) involved in initiating and amplifying these campaigns seem to be multiplying and gaining popularity.
Journalist Umer Ali who covers human rights, conflict and censorship expressed his concern on Twitter:
As if the ongoing crackdown against PTM, critical journalists, activists and politicians were not enough, the top Twitter trend in Pakistan is calling for further arrests of “anti-Pakistan” journalists.
— Umer Ali (@IamUmer1) July 4, 2019
PTM is the Pashtun Tahfuzz Movement, a civic grass root movement calling for an inquiry into the extra-judicial killings and abductions of Pashtun citizen by law-enforcement agencies.
Waqass Goraya, a Pakistani blogger currently living in self-exile in the Netherlands and who was targeted for his criticism of the military in 2017, told Global Voices:
We are witnessing unprecedented censorship and control by military both in online and offline spaces. The jobs of news editors are replaced with military oversight experts in media houses. Mainstream media houses invite ISPR or Inter Services Public Relations (military PR wing) approved guests on the TV shows. Any non-compliance results in outage of [the] channel. Channels go off air. Newspapers disappear before reaching end users.
These social media campaigns are planned, schemed, orchestrated carefully and launched systematically to scare and threaten in an attempt to suppress any critical voice. Many of these accounts are believed to be managed by students, fresh graduates or unemployed youth. Gharida Farooqi, journalist and TV host at Express News who herself faced online harassment, explained that ”the youth take this as a lucrative opportunity and are used as propaganda tools for certain quarters of the ruling elite”. She told Global Voices:
Labelling journalists “anti-Pakistan,” “anti-State,” “anti-nation,” “anti-Islam,” “anti-democracy,” is not new however, the use of social media for unfurling this propaganda is relatively new. The recent trend seen on Twitter ArrestAntiPakJournalists was an off-shoot of this approach, narrative and thinking. Any journalist who is “found” to be raising questions on the working of government and state-institutions especially military establishment is immediately labeled and bracketed in any one of the above term.
Mubashir Bukhari, executive editor of the Truth Tracker, a magazine covering ”transparency, governance and accountability in Pakistan”, described the campaign as part of a ”dangerous trend” in the country. He said in an interview with Global Voices:
Anyone who gives an alternate solution to the policies of the government or the military is labeled as anti-Pakistan or a traitor. Such trends are not only threatening and intimidating journalists but also putting the life of journalists at risk. Current situation is worse than what happened during the military dictator Zia Ul Haq’s time back in the 1980s.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ there is a rising trend of censorship under pressure from the military in Pakistan. In a report published in 2018, the press freedom advocacy group documented several violations committed by the military:
As killings of journalists in Pakistan decline so too does press freedom, as the country’s powerful military quietly, but effectively, restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters. Journalists who push back or are overly critical of authorities are attacked, threatened, or arrested.
In this climate of censorship, online campaigns aimed at silencing journalists will only contribute to the decline of press and media freedoms in the country. There were already reports that Jang Group journalists Wajih Sani, Umar Cheema and Azaz Syed, who were among the journalists targeted by the #ArrestAntiPakJournalists campaign had deactivated their Twitter accounts.
Global Voices reached out to Syed and Cheema but they were not available for comments.