Pakistan Cracks Down on Social-Media Critics of Military

By Qasim NaumanFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's government is cracking down on social-media critics of the nation's powerful military, a move many activists and opposition lawmakers say is aimed at suppressing free speech and political dissent.

Authorities targeted 27 users on Facebook and Twitter in the past week that allegedly criticized the military, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said Tuesday. Mr. Khan said eight of the 27 are being interviewed about their antimilitary posts, while the rest are being sought for questioning. Mr. Khan said the investigation isn't targeting the social-media platforms themselves.

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Pakistan's military has ruled the country for about half of its 70-year history and has carried out several coups. It remains a potent force, controlling security and foreign policies. Ruling party members say the government doesn't want to feud with the military in the run-up to national elections in the next year, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seeks to be re-elected.

"The military is an institution that makes jet fighters, holds nuclear weapons and has five hundred thousand armed men. But they are scared of a 140 character tweet," said Jibran Nasir, a human-rights activist. "It is obvious this is about egos, not national security."

The military didn't respond to requests for comment.

The crackdown comes after a period of renewed tensions between Mr. Sharif's civilian government and the military following a report last year that he confronted the military over its alleged support for some jihadist groups.

After the military termed the leak a breach of national security, the government launched an inquiry that concluded this month. Two ministers were fired, but leaders and supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, the main opposition party, demanded stronger action.

Many PTI supporters took to social media to accuse Gen. Qamar Bajwa, the army chief, of going soft on the government. Others, including supporters of the ruling party, accused the military of acting beyond its constitutional limits in pressuring the civilian government.

Interior Minister Khan said Tuesday such comments were "unacceptable" and that authorities will act against those that "unjustly criticize and ridicule" the country's military and judiciary. Mr. Khan said there are limits in Pakistan's constitution to the freedom of expression in cases where it can harm the country's defense and security.

Human-rights activists say the vague phrasing of the constitutional clause about freedom of expression is often used to curb dissent against the military and the government.

The crackdown has outraged opposition parties and human-rights activists. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent body, demanded an end to what it called arbitrary curbs on the freedom of expression.

"Why are they intimidating people? They're trying to curb people's freedom of expression. This is anti-democratic," said Imran Khan, PTI chairman, threatening street protests if it didn't stop.

Interior Minister Khan insisted Tuesday that the government won't place restrictions on social-media platforms, but "there are red lines, according to the law and constitution of Pakistan." He said none of the social-media users questioned by authorities have been arrested or charged with a crime yet, and that they were allowed to have a lawyer present during questioning. Mr. Khan denied that any of the eight social-media users was harassed.

Arslan Khalid, head of the PTI's social-media operations, said one PTI party activists was required to hand over his mobile phones and laptops and passwords when he was questioned. The government also questioned some members of Mr. Sharif's ruling party, party members said.

A Pakistani journalist, Taha Siddiqui, who reports for France 24 and other new outlets, said he filed a court complaint on Monday after being summoned for questioning, saying he was harassed and unable to perform his job.

His reaction came after five bloggers who posted content critical of the state and the military went missing in January. One of them, after returning, accused Pakistani intelligence agencies of detaining and torturing him. The military and the government denied that.

On the latest actions, Mr. Siddiqui said: "This is an attempt to silence any dissent and any sort of constructive criticism of the Pakistani military, which is a holy cow in this country. When someone talks about it, they use different tools to silence people. They want people to self-censor."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 23, 2017 10:31 ET (14:31 GMT)