ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has identified dozens of suspects involved in what it calls an “organised” campaign against the country’s armed forces on social media, even as opposition parties condemned the alleged “misuse” of the cybercrime law by the government.

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In fact, opposition parties even pledged to fight for supporters of the ruling party, who had been rounded up during the crackdown.

Earlier: Another member of PTI's social media team taken into custody by govt

“We have identified dozens of suspects involved in running an organised campaign on social media against the Pakistan Army. We have taken some of them into custody for interrogation,” an FIA official told Dawn on Sunday.

Opposition to fight for all detained social media activists, even those from PML-N; journalist alleges harassment by FIA

The action was ordered by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan around a week ago after he took notice of online criticism of the armed forces following the May 10 announcement by the Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s media affairs wing, of the withdrawal of a tweet that “rejected” the government notification of the findings of a body, set up to investigate a story published in Dawn last year.

The official said the government had asked the FIA’s Counterterrorism Department (CTD) to help trace the “real culprits” in this regard. “The CTD is also helping us trace those running an anti-military campaign on social media,” he said.

“We have taken some suspects into custody, but at this stage we cannot disclose their identities. No FIR has been registered against anyone detained in the crackdown so far,” the official said.

He clarified that individuals would be charged only after a detailed forensic analysis of their social media accounts, because it had become common for users to employ fake identities and post in other people’s name.

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Forensic teams from the FIA’s cybercrime wing have been working on the Facebook accounts of suspects, WhatsApp groups, blogs and websites where such a material is being uploaded.

The official clarified that FIA was “not targeting those posting comments or images unintentionally or without any vested interest”.

Support across party lines

But since the crackdown targeted social media activists linked to nearly all main political parties, the major opposition parties vowed to resist all efforts to stifle dissent through the use of state institutions.

On Saturday, an FIA team took Dr Faisal Ranjha — a vocal supporter of the ruling party — into custody from Kamoke near Gujranwala over suspicion of posting anti-military material on social media and shifted him to its headquarters in Islamabad.

He was detained alongside other party activists belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Sources said that all those detained had been released after questioning, but complaints had been registered against them.

Earlier: Imran accuses govt of harassing social media activists

PTI vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi met the detained activists, hailing from his party, as well as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), on Sunday and assured them of his party’s full support.

The PTI also announced that it would file a petition before the Islamabad High Court (IHC) against the “illegal actions” being taken by the government against political workers and social media activists.

Talking to Dawn, PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry said his party would stand by all political and social media activists, irrespective of political affiliations, since the party believed in the right to freedom of expression.

“The PTI will support and fight for every social media activist and political worker, be they from the PPP or the PML-N,” Mr Chaudhry declared. He said the party would hold a demonstration outside the National Press Club today (Monday) against the FIA’s actions.

Besides, sources in the PML-N said there was great resentment within the party over the government’s policy to crack down on social media activists. Some party leaders are planning to raise the issue with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif upon his return from Saudi Arabia, they said.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has called the curbs on social media “undemocratic, against the Constitution and counterproductive”.

PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said in a statement the “increasing misuse” by the state of the cybercrime law was a matter of serious concern and must be stopped.

Read: Salman Haider’s disappearance won’t silence our voices

He said the misuse and overuse of blanket orders, issued last week by the interior ministry to take action against social media users in the name of national security, was not acceptable.

“It is disturbing that in a short span of time nearly 1,000 cases had been registered against social media platforms. In addition, provisions of the cybercrime legislation have been arbitrarily interpreted to impose new restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in the name of national security,” he said.

“Publicly voicing concerns about the national security narrative of the state is not undermining security. On the contrary, presenting alternate opinions strengthens national security and should be welcomed,” he said.

In his orders, the interior minister had stated that “disrespecting the Pakistan Army and its officials under the guise of freedom of expression will not be tolerated”.

He had ordered strict action against anyone found involved in the malicious campaign, “irrespective of which party or profession they hail from”.

Soon after the minister’s directive, the FIA swung into action and detained a number of suspected people for their alleged involvement in criticising the armed forces through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook.

However, an FIA official said that its cybercrime wing needed modern equipment to deal with such offences.

“There is also a need to set up a special tribunal to exclusively hear cases related to cybercrime. International linkages for information-sharing regarding cyber security should be established and international covenants and agreements for cooperation in combating cybercrime should be signed. Procurement strategies for secure and resilient hardware and software products should be developed to deal with the issue,” the official said, adding the interior ministry would have to pay attention in this regard.

Journalist ‘harassed’

Meanwhile, a working journalist claimed on Sunday that the FIA had been harassing him and decided to approach the Islamabad High Court for relief. Taha Siddiqui, who works for a number of foreign media outlets, will file a case before the court on Monday through his counsel Asma Jahangir.

In his petition, Mr Siddiqui states he received a phone call on Thursday evening from someone who identified himself as Noman Bodla, a deputy director in the FIA’s Counterterrorism Department, and asked him to appear before the agency.

Mr Siddiqui claimed the FIA officer responded vaguely and gave no details when asked what this was in connection with but hinted that the interrogation would be about his professional work.

He said his name was on a list that was circulating on social media and that he felt harassed, intimidated and unable to continue his professional duties.

When Dawn contacted the phone number (from which the call was received) provided in the petition, the person on the other end confirmed that he was, indeed, FIA’s Noman Bodla.

However, the official did not share what charges the journalist is facing. “It is the right of every individual to approach the courts. If the journalist in question is going to court, let him go. We will present our stance before the court,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2017


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