Information Warfare: Pakistan Tames Twitter And Facebook

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February 12, 2019: Pakistan appears to have come out ahead in its long battle with Internet social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. These were the last “media” in Pakistan where reports of military violence (including kidnapping and murder) of critics could be reported. Now, Twitter and Facebook have agreed to accept government control over who can post what with regard to the Pakistani military. The Pakistanis did this by weaponizing blasphemy laws to deliberately take on critics outside Pakistan reporting criminal activity in Pakistan. The military, which now basically controls the government (without a coup), had the government make thousands of complaints to social media outlets demanding that hateful messages be deleted. As bad as that is most Pakistanis recognize that the blasphemy laws are no longer about religion but have been turned into a legal method of using mob violence and murder to silence or kill anyone who is seen as opposed to the Pakistani military or local Islamic terror groups. Any politicians or senior officials who back blasphemy law reform are fair game for death threats and even assassination.

Efforts to repeal these laws, or at least limit their misuse, are violently resisted by Islamic political parties and the military. It was the military that created these laws back when it decided to turn Islamic terrorism into a secret weapon for use against its enemies. The military still uses false blasphemy charges as an excuse to silence (often fatally) media and political opponents. This sort of thing has gotten worse as the Pakistani military is put under more pressure to cease supporting Islamic terrorism.

The military campaign against hostile media appears to have won, despite holdouts among the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. This effort has been underway for over a decade and went into high gear back 2012 when Islamic political parties in Pakistan forced the government to block over 20,000 websites, including YouTube, for displaying material considered critical of Islam. Also, the pro-Islamic parties organized dozens of demonstrations to protest, often violently, an American film accused of being anti-Islam. These demonstrations were part of an effort by the Islamic parties to establish themselves as censors for all Pakistanis. The 2012 crackdown began earlier in that year when the government blocked national access to Twitter for most of the day, apparently because of blasphemous (to some Moslems) activity on Twitter. Every day, if not every hour, there was something on Twitter that Islamic conservatives would consider blasphemous. What the Pakistani government particularly disliked about Twitter was that it was a speedy conduit of reports on bad behavior by the Pakistani officials. Shutting Twitter down for a sustained period would be enormously unpopular inside Pakistan and that’s why the threat evaporated. Yet, the Islamic politicians kept at it and in mid-2017 a senior Facebook executive met with the Pakistani Interior Ministry to discuss Pakistan demands that Facebook monitor and censor Facebook posts that Pakistani law considers blasphemous against Islam, especially if the message was posted by one of the 33 million Pakistani Facebook users. In 2017 a Pakistani Facebook user had been sentenced to death for such a post and that prompted Facebook to meet with Pakistani officials and help sustain the illusion that the Internet could be censored. That served the goals of the Pakistani military, who were after individual critics not everyone who uses Facebook and Twitter. After all the Pakistani officers make enough to be comfortably middle class and the younger members of these families are big fans of the Internet. But individuals who criticize the Pakistani military via the Internet do not have a lot of fans among military families.

Meanwhile, false charges of blasphemy continue to be used simply to persecute non-Moslems as well as Moslems who criticize the military, government or an Islamic terrorist group that is protected by the military. An example of this Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian falsely accused of blasphemy. Several Pakistani courts found her not-guilty but Islamic radicals saw that as secular courts meddling in a religious matter and continued to call for her death. Moslems in Western nations threatened violence if Asia Bibi was granted asylum. Until early 2019 the Pakistani government refused to let Asia Bibi leave the country but finally relented and Asia Bibi and her husband quietly left Pakistan in late January and arrived in Canada. The U.S. was also in the process of passing a special law granting Asia Bibi asylum.

In October 2018 the Pakistani Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy. She was accused in 2009, sentenced to death in 2010 and been appealing ever since. The woman was trying to find a country that would give her and her family asylum because it is common for those accused of blasphemy to be murdered by Islamic radicals. Britain turned down the asylum request because of fears British Moslems would become violent over the issue. The Pakistani blasphemy laws are usually only used by Moslems against non-Moslems and when they are used against Moslems it is usually for revenge or political reasons. The laws are unpopular with the majority of Pakistanis. But the minority who do support the laws, are willing to use lethal force to keep the laws on the books. These blasphemy laws were enacted in the 1970s at the behest of the military. The opposition to repealing these laws is violent and fearless. In 2011 the Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards because Taseer had openly opposed the blasphemy laws and especially their use against Asia Bibi. While no one had ever been executed because of these laws, many are accused and jailed each year, and often condemned to death (and later reprieved). But over 30 of those accused have been murdered by Islamic fanatics, who are a large, and violent, minority of the population. The Islamic radical political parties called on followers to kill Asia Bibi (who remains jailed for her own safety until she fled to Canada) and anyone who supports her (including the Supreme Court judges). The army ordered mass media to ignore all the street violence and report that there was no reaction of the court ruling. Internet media told another story with dozens of photos and videos showing the escalating violence and death threats. The Pakistani prime minister went along with the army decision to try and make this a media non-event. The protesters were told by the government that Asia Bibi would not be allowed to leave the country until another legal move was made to get the Supreme Court decision reversed. That effort failed and growing diplomatic pressure eventually persuaded the government to quietly allow Asia Bibi and her husband to leave the country. What happened here was the exception as the lynch mobs usually get to the victim first.

 


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