LAHORE: The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested eight people from across Punjab after it launched a crackdown on Tuesday on social media activists that it believes have been involved in a smear campaign against institutions, especially the army, since former prime minister Imran Khan was ousted through a no-confidence motion.

While the FIA has not associated the online abusers with any political party, PTI senior leader Asad Umar said the party would move court against harassment of its social media activists. “A petition challenging the harassment of PTI social media activists has been finalised and will be filed in high courts on Wednesday (today),” Mr Umar said in a tweet.

The FIA counterterrorism wing sprang into action after a vilification drive against the army chief was launched on social networking websites following Mr Khan’s ouster on April 10 in the wake of a no-confidence move by the joint opposition in the National Assembly.

Since last Sunday, the top trending hashtags on Twitter were those targeting the army, the judiciary and the new government, and on Tuesday the tweets using those hashtags soared to 4.3 million.

Asad says PTI to move court against ‘harassment’

“We have arrested some eight suspects in connection with a social media campaign against the army and the judiciary from different parts of Punjab, including Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad and Gujrat. More arrests are expected in the coming days,” an FIA official told Dawn.

He claimed that the vilification campaign against the institutions had been launched in an organised manner by social media activists operating from within and outside the country.

The eight arrested men will be booked under sections of the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act.

“One of the arrested suspects has 22 fake accounts on social media targeting the army and judiciary,” the official claimed, adding that the FIA had been provided with a list of 50 such activists by intelligence agencies to lay hands on.

On Sunday, the house of former premier Khan’s focal person on digital media, Dr Arsalan Khalid, was raided in Lahore by plainclothes officers, who took away a laptop and some mobile phones. Dr Khalid, whose name has been placed on a no-fly list, is reportedly in hiding to evade arrest. He is accused of running a social media campaign against a certain state institution. The PTI has claimed Dr Khalid had never abused anyone on social media or attacked any institution.

Most of the social media activists associated with the PTI have reportedly gone underground to evade the FIA crackdown.

Earlier, Azhar Mashwani, the former focal person on digital media to the Punjab chief minister, told Dawn that the PTI had about 800 volunteers in its social media team, which never encouraged or initiated any objectionable trend. “We can take the responsibility of these 800 people, but not the party supporters who indulge in such trends,” he said.

Mr Mashwani said the PTI was the first party in the country to have an overwhelming presence on social media, following which the PML-N formed its own teams to counter it. “However, we want action against those involved in offensive trends irrespective of their political affiliation,” he demanded.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2022

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