Many or­ga­ni­za­tions banned in Pak­istan thrive on­line

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

It's dusk. The shad­ows of three men bran­dish­ing as­sault ri­fles wel­come the reader to the Face­book page of Lashkar-e-Is­lam, one of 65 or­ga­ni­za­tions that are banned in Pak­istan, ei­ther be­cause of ter­ror­ist links or as pur­vey­ors of sec­tar­ian hate.

Still more than 40 of these groups op­er­ate and flour­ish on so­cial me­dia sites, com­mu­ni­cat­ing on Face­book, Twit­ter, What­sApp and Tele­gram, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior of­fi­cial with Pak­istan's Fed­eral In­ves­ti­ga­tion Agency, or FIA, who is tasked with shut­ting down the sites. They use them to re­cruit, raise money and de­mand a rigid Is­lamic sys­tem. It is also where they in­cite the Sunni faith­ful against the coun­try's mi­nor­ity Shi­ites and ex­toll ji­had, or holy war, in In­dia-ruled Kash­mir and in Afghanistan.

"It's like a party of the banned groups on­line. They are all on so­cial me­dia," the FIA of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press. He spoke on con­di­tion his name not be used be­cause agency of­fi­cials are not al­lowed to be quoted by name.

Mean­while, Pak­istan is wag­ing a cy­ber crack­down on ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists who use so­cial me­dia to crit­i­cize the govern­ment, the mil­i­tary or the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. The In­te­rior Min­istry even or­dered the FIA, Pak­istan's equiv­a­lent of the Amer­i­can FBI, to move against "those ridi­cul­ing the Pak­istan Army on so­cial me­dia." The FIA of­fi­cial said the agency has in­ter­ro­gated more than 70 ac­tivists for post­ings con­sid­ered crit­i­cal. All but two have been re­leased and a third is still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, he said.

Ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and rights groups who mon­i­tor Pak­istan's cy­berspace say the banned groups ac­tive on so­cial me­dia op­er­ate un­en­cum­bered be­cause sev­eral are pa­tron­ized by the mil­i­tary, its in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, rad­i­cal re­li­gious groups and politi­cians look­ing for votes.

Even the FIA of­fi­cial con­cedes state sup­port for some of the banned groups but said it is a global phe­nom­e­non en­gaged in by all in­tel­li­gence agen­cies.

"Every­one is pro­tect­ing their own ter­ror­ists. Your good guy is my bad guy and vice versa," he said, adding that some sites be­long­ing to banned groups are in­ten­tion­ally ig­nored to gain in­tel­li­gence.

On one Face­book page, the Afghan TalE­ban flag wel­comes view­ers, its mast­head em­bla­zoned with Ara­bic script iden­ti­fy­ing the page as be­long­ing to the Is­lamic Emi­rate of Afghanistan. Still an­other Face­book site fea­tures one of In­dia's most wanted, Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e -Taiba, an­other banned or­ga­ni­za­tion and a US de­clared ter­ror­ist group. Saeed even has a $10 mil­lion US-im­posed bounty on his head. Yet his group, which has been res­ur­rected un­der sev­eral names, is billed as a char­ity and has sev­eral Face­book pages. Cur­rently called Falah-e-In­sa­niat, the group boasts of its com­mu­nity work, but its pages fea­ture anti-In­dia videos, call Syria a bleed­ing wound, rail against In­dia and chas­tise the Pak­istan govern­ment for sid­ing with the US fol­low­ing the 9/11 at­tacks.

Face­book and Twit­ter have said that they ban "ter­ror­ist con­tent." In the sec­ond half of last year, Twit­ter said on its site it had sus­pended 376,890 ac­counts be­cause they were thought to pro­mote ter­ror­ism, although they say less than 2 per­cent of the re­movals were the re­sult of re­quests from gov­ern­ments. Face­book, mean­while, said in a blog last month it uses ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and hu­man re­view­ers to find and re­move "ter­ror­ist con­tent."

"There is no place on Face­book for ter­ror­ism," Face­book spokes­woman Clare Ware­ing said in an email re­ply to The As­so­ci­ated Press. "Our Com­mu­nity Stan­dards do not al­low groups or peo­ple that en­gage in ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity, or posts that ex­press sup­port for ter­ror­ism. We en­cour­age peo­ple to use our re­port­ing tools if they find con­tent that they be­lieve vi­o­lates our stan­dards, so we can in­ves­ti­gate and take ac­tion."

Shahzad Ahmed, of the Is­lam­abad-based so­cial me­dia rights group BytesForAll, said Pak­istan's pow­er­ful mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are wag­ing a "com­mu­ni­ca­tion war" against pro­gres­sive, moder­ate voices and those who crit­i­cize the govern­ment and more par­tic­u­larly the mil­i­tary and its agen­cies. They use rad­i­cal re­li­gious groups to pro­mote their nar­ra­tive, he said.

"Their con­nec­tiv­ity on the ground, the mosques, madras­sas and sup­port­ers trans­lates into so­cial me­dia strength and they are (fur­ther) strength­ened be­cause they feel 'no one is go­ing to touch us,'" he said.

Ahmed Waqass Go­raya is a blog­ger who was picked up and tor­tured by men he be­lieves be­longed to the coun­try's pow­er­ful in­tel­li­gence agency, known by its acro­nym ISI. He said Pak­istan's so­cial me­dia space is dom­i­nated by armies of trolls un­leashed by the mil­i­tary, in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and al­lied rad­i­cal re­li­gious groups to push their nar­ra­tive. That nar­ra­tive in­cludes pro­mot­ing anti-In­dia sen­ti­ment - In­dia is Pak­istan's long­time en­emy against whom it has fought three wars.

Crit­ics who openly ac­cuse the mil­i­tary of us­ing ex­trem­ists as prox­ies are un­der at­tack, said Go­raya. He fled Pak­istan af­ter so­cial me­dia was used to sug­gest the he and other blog­gers were in­volved in blas­phemy, a charge that car­ries the death penalty. In Pak­istan even the sug­ges­tion that some­one in­sulted Is­lam or its prophet can in­cite mobs to vi­o­lence.

Ear­lier this month, Taimoor Raza, a mi­nor­ity Shi­ite, be­came the first per­son sen­tenced to death un­der Pak­istan's blas­phemy law for a so­cial me­dia post­ing.

Taha Sid­diqui, a Pak­istan-based jour­nal­ist with France 24 and an ac­tive so­cial me­dia user who of­ten crit­i­cizes heavy handed ac­tions of the mil­i­tary or its agen­cies, has taken the FIA to court to de­mand to know why he is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter be­ing or­dered to come in for ques­tion­ing. His re­sis­tance is tak­ing its toll with fam­ily, friends and col­leagues, who plead for him to be silent, he said. "They worry someday I will just dis­ap­pear."

At FIA head­quar­ters in the cap­i­tal, Is­lam­abad, the of­fi­cial told the AP that banned groups use proxy servers that re­veal IP ad­dresses buried some­where in other coun­tries, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to track.

That ex­pla­na­tion was called "lame" by Ha­roon Baloch, a so­cial me­dia rights ac­tivist who has stud­ied the free-wheel­ing use of so­cial me­dia by banned groups and pur­vey­ors of sec­tar­ian hate. He said sites can be blocked, users lo­cated and the per­sons run­ning the pages stopped.

Blog­gers like Go­raya had elab­o­rate safe­guards but still were tracked down by author­i­ties, said Baloch. Un­like the banned groups, Baloch said blog­gers, so­cial me­dia ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists are found and stopped be­cause Pak­istan's civil­ian and mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are on the of­fen­sive against them.

"Agen­cies have es­tab­lished a new wing to mon­i­tor 24/7, to counter lib­eral and pro­gres­sive de­bate and par­tic­u­larly any­thing that crit­i­cizes their poli­cies," he said. — AP

IS­LAM­ABAD: In this Fri­day, July 7, 2017 photo, Ha­roon Baloch, a Pak­istani so­cial me­dia rights ac­tivist looks at a Face­book page of a re­li­gious group, that refers to their leader as a "true leader," in Is­lam­abad, Pak­istan. A se­nior Pak­istani govern­ment of­fi­cial said more than 40 of 65 or­ga­ni­za­tions banned in Pak­istan op­er­ate flour­ish­ing so­cial me­dia sites, com­mu­ni­cat­ing on Face­book, Twit­ter, What­sApp and Tele­gram to re­cruit, raise money and de­mand a rigid Is­lamic sys­tem. Mean­while Pak­istan is wag­ing a cy­ber war against ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists who use so­cial me­dia to crit­i­cize the govern­ment and its agen­cies. — AP

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