ISLAMABAD - In another manifestation of there being two parallel governments at work in the state of Pakistan, the interior ministry has ordered a probe to find on whose orders a crackdown has been launched against ‘pro-PML-N social media activists’.

The harassing and picking up of social media activists by the state agencies is not new, as many people deemed or dubbed ‘anti-state’ or ‘anti-social’ have been targeted in the past too.

In January this year, some bloggers had mysteriously disappeared only to be returned under unexplained circumstances.

But the issue of ‘freedom of expression’ and its permissible extent has taken a sharp political turn since the ouster of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who launched a political war on the army-judiciary duo after his disqualification in July as a result of Panama Papers investigations.

The broader segregation between pro-democracy and pro-state institutions segments of society had already been narrowed down to pro-and anti-Nawaz divide, which was only deepened by the ouster of ruling party chief and his defiant demeanour.

The issue of crackdown on the social media activists was lately highlighted when FIA’s cybercrime wing arrested on Friday two men suspected of posting anti-judiciary and anti-army remarks on social media.

This was followed on Saturday by PML-N President Nawaz Sharif’s demand – made through the party’s Twitter account – that the interior ministry ensure the recovery of missing activists.

Interestingly, the cybercrimes law under which the action is being taken against the social media activist by the FIA was legislated last year when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, and opposition parties had strongly criticised it fearing that PML-N government would use it for political victimisation.

A few days earlier, reports circulated on social media that a crackdown has been launched by the FIA and other security agencies against the social media activists who have been found involved using the cyber space to write against the army.

A number social media activists were found blaming that bloggers, journalists and social media activists having pro-PML-N views are being harassed, picked up and questioned for expressing their political views.

They claimed that it was a targeted action as some of these media activists were part of now defunct Social Media Cell headed by Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Nawaz Sharif.

The interior ministry did not give any official version over the reports of disappearances and arrests of social media activists. A spokesperson of the interior ministry avoided comment over the issue and only said that he was seeking details on the matter.

In a Twitter statement, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal said that “we are investigating on whose orders they (pro-PML-N activists) were picked up.”

Asked by a Twitterati why the federal government and PML-N leadership were silent over the ‘forced disappearance’ of PML-N workers and micro bloggers, the minister said that action was meant against terrorist and extremist organisations spreading hatred through online media and not against political activists.

The minister’s remarks on social media drew criticism from some activists who said that it was unfortunate that FIA, working under the interior ministry, had rounded up two activists and minister did not know about it.

Haroon Baloch, a digital rights activist and a researcher at the Bytes for All, said that perhaps FIA had started probe against some activists on the basis of a list earlier prepared by its Counter Terrorism Wing (CTW).

He said those activists were being especially targeted who were supporting a specific political discourse that had emerged in the country after the Panama case verdict. However, he was not sure about how many people have been probed by FIA or other security agencies.

Earlier in May this year, the CTW had launched a crackdown on dozens of social media activists for allegedly running an organised campaign against the country’s armed forces, under the newly legislated prevention of cyber crime law.

A number of supporters of ruling PML-N had been rounded up and the campaign had been spearheaded under the instructions of then interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Nisar had taken notice of online criticism of the armed forces following the May 10 announcement by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) to withdraw a controversial tweet that had rejected the government notification regarding the findings of the probe committee, set up to investigate Dawn leaks scandal.

 Friday arrests

The FIA’s cybercrime wing arrested two men from Rawalpinidi on Friday. Anwar Aadil was rounded up from Railway Carriage Factory Colony and Wajid Rasul Malik from Al-Noor Colony, and later both were shifted to an undisclosed location.

Earlier on Thursday, FIA registered a case against them in the light of an inquiry that was conducted on the complaint of a resident of Islamabad.

The FIR registered by FIA says that Aadil and Malik through their twitter accounts “illegally, unauthorisedly, dishonestly with malafide intention and ulterior motives uploaded, disseminated defamatory/objectionable and disgraceful material/contents against the honourable judges of Supreme Court, [the] armed forces of Pakistan, Government of Pakistan etc.”

The FIR states that such illegal activities were causing disharmony and unrest among the public and inciting hatred and contempt against the government and state institutions.

The case has been registered under different sections of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 and Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). FIR says that “role of others [aiders and abettors] will be thrashed out during the investigation” and “competent authority has accorded permission for registration of case.”

Nawaz statement

In a statement issued from London on Saturday, Nawaz Sharif expressed serious concern over the harassment and disappearances of those social media activists who are endorsing the point of view of PML-N and declared it an attack on the freedom of expression.

“It is the constitutional responsibility of the government to respect freedom of expression, including on social media,” he said in the statement released through the party’s Twitter account. The former premier said that it was condemnable to suppress opposite political views through force.

“The law of the land gives the right to freedom of expression and the right to oppose anyone’s views while remaining within [moral and cultural] values and [limits of] decency. I firmly believe in the freedom of expression,” he said.

Nawaz asked the interior ministry to immediately take notice of the disappearances of social media activists who endorse the point of view of PML-N, and ensure their early recovery.