South Asia | Pakistan's assault on cyber terrorism is proving toothless
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

Pakistan’s assault on cyber terrorism is proving toothless

Federal Investigation Agency has yet to register a single case under 2016 law – and yet hate material from violent extremist groups is abundant online

April 19, 2017 5:56 PM (UTC+8)

“At the Holi gathering, the Prime Minister of Pakistan delivered blasphemous words that pose a great danger. The PM… violated his oath, the ideology of Pakistan, the Quran and the Sunnah. His speech was a dangerous assault on religion as he attributed his concocted statements to the Quran and Sunnah.

These were the words of Dr. Muhammad Asif Jalali, a cleric, who, in a Friday sermon last month, demanded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif apologize for committing blasphemy. The sermon, delivered on March 17th, is still available on Facebook.

Under Islamic law, accusing someone of blasphemy is tantamount to declaring him or her an apostate – which is forbidden. The Constitution of Pakistan takes such matters seriously: when accusations are made, the state is supposed to take action and let the courts deliver a verdict. To date, there have been no moves made against Dr. Jalali, who continues to address religious gatherings around the country.

Dr. Jalali’s denunciation of the prime minister came after an address he gave on the occasion of the Hindu festival Holi, in Karachi.

In his speech, Mr. Sharif said: “Some call God Allah, some say only God, some say Bhagwan, others say Eeshwar, some say Waheguru. Some wear turbans, some wear cholas, some wear suits, some wear ties, some wear shalwar kameez and it’s perfectly fine. This liberty was awarded by Allah. Who are we to take this freedom away?”

Commenting during a live television talk show, retired Air Vice Martial Shahid Latif also accused the Prime Minister of committing blasphemy.

Occupying a position of privilege, Nawaz Sharif has not felt the heat of the inciteful statements made against him. Frequently, however, the fate of people accused of blasphemy is horrific. Mashal Khan is just one recent example.

A resident of Sawabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, Khan was lynched by an angry mob of his fellow students at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan last week. His brutal murder followed accusations that he had committed blasphemy in a dormitory debate. Police have found no evidence that he did so. His accusers and murderers continue to roam freely, however: the state is afraid of moving against them.

Violent and extremist elements in Pakistan now openly vilify the state and other Muslim sects which they disdain. Outlawed terrorist organizations have embraced social media and the country has no adequate mechanisms to keep a watch over what has become a potent online menace. In 2014, the National Counter Terrorism Authority Pakistan (NACTA) drew up a National Action Plan which – among other things – pledged “measures against abuse of internet and social media for terrorism.” Then, in August of last year, the government introduced its Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, in part to govern hate speech. So far it has proven toothless.

Unable to block or delink only the film, PTA decided to block YouTube altogether – and it remained blocked for over three years

Globally, violent organizations have been very successful in using the internet to propagate their viewpoint. In Pakistan, banned extremist groups such as Al Qaida Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Almi (LeJA) and the globally notorious Islamic State (IS) use Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Vimeo, YouTube and Daily Motion freely. Such proscribed organizations regularly use social platforms, as well as their own websites and blogs, to proclaim responsibility for deadly attacks.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has responsibility for running and regulating the country’s telecommunication systems and services. Technically, it is way behind the curve in terms of monitoring and countering cyber terrorists.

One example should serve to illustrate the crudeness of the PTA’s approach. In 2012, Pakistan was outraged by Innocence of Muslims, a short anti-Islamic film that had appeared on YouTube. Unable to block or delink only the film, PTA decided to block YouTube altogether – and it remained blocked for over three years.

Sections 9-12 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) address issues such as the glorification of terrorism offenses, hate speech, recruitment, and the funding and planning of terrorism. Asia Times has learnt, however, that the body responsible for enforcing the act, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), has yet to register a single case of cyber terrorism in the country. Given the hate material that is abundantly available online, this tells its own story.

A page from the website of Islamic State. Photo: Asia Times
A page from the website of Islamic State. Photo: Asia Times

For all PECA’s strident tone, Pakistan has yet to sign the Convention on Cyber Crime (CCC) – also known as the Budapest Convention – which is the first international treaty on crimes committed via the internet. Neither does it have proper mechanisms for monitoring internet traffic.

Until such times as Pakistan joins common frameworks for combating cyber crime and shows that it is serious about monitoring terrorists’ online activities, hate speech – and worse – will continue to thrive.

Syed Arfeen is an investigative journalist in Pakistan. He tweets @arfeensyyed

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