THEME: HUMAN RIGHTS
A surge of disinformation and fake news proliferation all over Pakistan’s digital space is a social predicament. The mushrooming disinformation aims to promote instability, chaos by often attacking state’s institutions and targeting vulnerable segments of society pertaining to human rights, economy, politics, trade, gender, religion, agriculture, etc. However, the transgender people constitute one of the most marginalized communities in the country and face problems ranging from social exclusion to discrimination and socio-economic deprivation. Albeit article 25, 26, 27 of the Constitution of Pakistan ensures citizen’s equality before law and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex respectively, yet the atrocities and discrimination against transgender persons continued.
In 2018, the National Assembly (NA) of Pakistan enacted the “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act” that provides legal recognition to transgender persons and prohibits discrimination and harassment. Under this Act, the local governments are obliged to provide for the welfare of the community. But the country has systematically failed to abide by its aforementioned law as transgender and other marginalized minorities have suffered discrimination/violence in many spheres of their lives. According to the Trans-Murder Monitoring project, funded by the European Union, Pakistan has recently averaged about 10 killings of transgender people annually, more than before the law passed, and, relative to population, far more than its neighbors.
It is noted that since 2015, at least 65 transgender women have been killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Incidents like rape and murder of a 15-year-old transgender boy in Faisalabad, killing of transgender women in Rawalpindi and Peshawar highlights the violence against transgender people from the past (2020). The transphobia and hate crimes have escalated the violence against the trans community.
In this milieu, recently a vicious disinformation campaign has been used as a tool by some religio-political leaders as an attempt to roll back the part of transgender act that ensures person’s right to change and register the name & gender according to his/her self-perceived identity. Hence, the trans community remains at risk.
- WHAT HAPPENED?
The “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act”, enacted by the NA in 2018, has recently been opposed by some segments of society arguing it contradicts Islamic teachings on gender identity. Four years after the act was passed in the parliament, religious and right-wing political parties have come forward to condemn the act stating it promotes homosexuality leading to new social conundrums. This has further triggered the ‘misinformed debate’ on social media, paving way for polarization and imperiling the trans community in the country. The right-wing leaders denounced the trans bill, calling it anti-Muslim and a liberal western conspiracy. Some religious parties opined that the act is giving legal protection to homosexuality. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Chief of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) labelled bill against the Islamic command. On the other hand, Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, member of Jamat-e-Islami (JI), slated the definitions of gender expression and gender identity in bill. He underlined that “Transgender is an American term, it has no place in Islam, and the legislation regarding the transgender community is against Quran and Sunnah and it will promote homosexuality.”
Senator Mohsin Aziz, while criticizing the bill, issued a statement that “transgender persons are not eunuchs (khawaja sira)”. Responding to criticism, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar said that trans community is creation of Allah and they should be respected. This matter should not be politicized.
Senator Mushtaq presented certain amendments to the bill last year and earlier this month. Senator Fawzia Arshad and Mohsin Aziz endorsed the amendments. A joint amendment by four members of JUI-F, including Senator Molana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, Senator Atta ur Rehman, Senator Maulvi Faiz Mohammad and Senator Kamran Murtaza, too has been filed in the upper house.
The amendments rejected self-perceived gender identity of a trans person and called to establish a medical board to ascertain that. Alteration to the bill also demanded that parents of trans persons would be responsible for their upbringing rather than handing them over to others.
- DELIBERATE DISINFORMATION
The debate to amend transgender Act stirred in July 2022 when a diverse group of experts and civil society members reviewed it and the developments stemming from this legislation from socio-religious, legal, medical, psychological and cultural aspects. They underlined that the right to gender identity on the basis of self-perception in trans Act has violated the social and legal fabric of the country. The trans Act serves the purposes of the western campaign for LGBTQ+ persons.
Many people from political and religious parties to social media influencers have scrutinized trans Act and misinformed society by underlining that the Act is based on western agenda which promotes homosexuality. JI Emir Sirajul Haq said that the trans Act is not in line with Islamic Sharia. It permits men and women to change their gender identity. It is a conspiracy to destroy the Islamic family system. This criticism instigated hatred and protest against trans Act on social media, largely among youth.
Some people on media have also spread the misinformation by comparing trans Act with the homosexuality among the people of ‘Lut’. They underlined that the transgender act promotes homosexuality in a way that it was practiced openly and unashamedly among the people of the city of Sodom (Sadum) and God had to send Prophet Lut to summon the people to give up their indecent behavior.
At the same time, people criticized the Pakistani movie “Joyland”.The movie line is drawn around sexual revolution and its poster featured a daring portrait of a transgender dancer in a Muslim country. Various hard liners have urged to ban the movie as citing the reason being the promotion of homosexual culture and immoral/taboo content.
A famous designer Maria Butt, in a video along with her sisters, stated that trans Act would have negative impact on families and the “actual Khwaja Sira community.” She misinformed people about the difference between intersex people and transgenders. Her sister suggested a DNA and chromosome tests to determine whether someone was actually Khwaja Sira, transgender or cisgender. Besides that, she criticized DR. Mehrub Moiz, a khwajasira activist, global policy practitioner with a strong interest in urbanism, governance reform in post-colonial states, and issues of gender and sexuality. She hailed the International School Lahore’s (ISL’s) decision to ban Dr. Mehrub’s talk for being trans and said, “this person is NOT from the Khwaja Sira community but a man transitioning into a woman in Pakistan.” Dr. Mehrub further underlined that ISL’s decision was illegal under the Transgender Protection Act of 2018.
Nevertheless, there is no clause in the Act that has encouraged same sex marriage or homosexuality. Amid criticism of the trans Act by some religious parties, which perceive it as an attempt to give legal protection to homosexuality, trans community responded underlining that Act neither mentions any kind of ‘sex change’ nor did it allow ‘unnatural’ sex. Social activists has condemned propaganda around the law and hate campaign against the community that has endangered their lives. They also urged people, including the religious community, to read the law for a better understanding. Chairperson Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Hina Jilani has extended support to the trans community. She underlined that objections to the trans Act are irrational.
Furthermore, social activist Bubbli Malik, Ayesha Mughal, Farzana Bari and Eman Mazari have condemned the religious figures for distorting the facts and promulgating a false narrative over the trans Act. Ayesha clarified that trans Act does not allow conversion from male to female or vice versa. As per the trans Act, a person could only get their gender changed to ‘X’ on a Nadra CNIC. She rejected the Jamat-i-Islami senator’s claim that around 28,000 people had converted to ‘X’ in four years. Only 2,978 were converted to ‘X’ across the country and there is no evidence regarding any change between male and female in the national database, she added.
The disinformation pertaining to trans Act held that it covers ‘homosexuality or same-sex relations’. A legal expert and human rights activist Reema Omar rejected this misperception and said that the criticism of the trans Act is ‘malicious, opportunistic and entirely baseless’. She stated that trans Act was enacted after months of research, deliberations and consultations and it had support from all major political parties, NCHR, members of Council of Islamic Ideology, civil society groups, and most importantly, Khawaja Sira and trans community. She added that gender identity and sexual orientation are entirely separate issues which are dishonestly and opportunistically being consolidated only for fear-mongering.
Gender rights activists continued to fight against the campaign launched against trans Act on social media. Trans community rights advocate and social activist Dr. Mehrub Moiz Awan led a thorough discussion (via Twitter space) on transgender identity and Transgender Rights Act 2018.
In addition to that, the media personnel, civil society members, organizations and social activists came in the support of trans Act and clarified the misperceptions.
A renowned anchor/journalist Shahzeb Khanzada made it clear that trans Act does not embolden homosexuality. Regarding the establishment of medical board to validate the gender identity of trans people against the right to self-perceived identity, Shahzeb aggrieved that it is not feasible to establish a five-member board across the country where fundamental human needs are yet to be fulfilled.
Meanwhile, Senator Farhatullah Babar lamented that the Trans Protection Act has been utterly misunderstood and misinterpreted. The trans community has been vulnerable to such misperceptions regarding the Act. It has thronged hatred against tarns people and endangered their lives. While clarifying the misunderstanding that the Act allowed change of gender from male to female or vice versa, Senator said “no male can modify his gender as female, nor can any female modify her gender as male under the Act.” Talking about the medical examination proposed in an amendment to the Act moved by a senator, he argued that when NADRA do not ask any man/woman to prove his/her gender then why trans people have to undergo such humiliation of getting approval from a medical board. Referring to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) that has labelled Act as inconsistent with the Islamic injunction, he said that the CII was consulted during the discussion leading to the adaptation of Act at first place.
However, two petitions (by JI & JUI-F) were filed in the Federal Sharia Court for the amendment of Transgender Act. The government sensed that the matter is being twisted and projected contrary to the tenets of Islam. Minister for Law Azam Nazeer Tarar rejected criticism on Transgender Act and said that “the matter will only be changed after the verdict of Sharia Court, which is responsible to see whether a law is against the shariah and the principles of Islam.” A meeting of Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights held at the Parliament to discuss the proposed amendments. The committee decided to engage religious scholars, medical and legal experts, human rights activists, NADRA chairman and the representatives of transgender community in upcoming meeting to discuss the amendments. Meanwhile, JI chief Sirajul Haq, terming the Act against Islamic shariah, warned of all religious parties’ protest on October 7, 2022 if government does not withdraw it.
- ABCDE FRAMEWORK
The framework comprising Actor, Behaviour, Content, Degree and Effect (ABCDE) breaks down the disinformation problem into smaller operative factors that help in diagnosis of the actual case.
|Primary actors: Political leaders, religious leaders, and a fashion designer||Transparency: The primary actors were known religio-political figures and they did nothide their identity whileposting content or issuingstatements.||Harm: The content of this disinformation campaign has endangered transgender lives||Audience: The targeted audiencewere the ordinary citizens, particularlyracist and religioussegments of the society||Human Rights: The content threatened the right to life, the physical well-being of trans community, free movement and had directbearing on fundamentalfreedoms of expression and identity.|
|Secondary actors: Social media influencers, and youth||Intent: The content of primary actors intended to defame trans community and hurttheir right to self-perceived identity.||Language (s): The language used by themain actors was accusatory,and prompted hate.||The Targeted: The content to some extent was tailored to target prominent trans activists|
|Authenticity: actors used false accusation and quoted wrong statistics i.e. unlawful techniques of communication||Expression: The contentconsisted of fallaciousallegations and hate mongering, and couldnot be protected under fundamental freedoms (freedom of expression & information)||Platform: Mainstream media andSocial media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube, etc.)|
|Dependency: Videos and maligningstatements were madethrough mainstream mediaand posted on social mediaplatforms||Truthfulness: The content wasdeceptive with falseaccusations, which was not verifiable after investigation.||Virility: Twitter was used to boost the online engagement on the campaign|
|Infrastructure: Backend coordinationwas evident from theprotest, followed bysocial media trends||Synthetic: The content was manipulated with untrue claims||Scale: The disinformation campaign was an ongoing campaign against trans lives, their right to identity and freedom of expression|
|Narratives: The content was alignedwith disinformationnarrative|
- ABCD FRAMEWORK ANALYSIS
The primary actors involved in this case included politicians and leaders of religious parties (JI & JUI-F) who via disinformation prompted (secondary actors) social media influencers, fashion designers and youth against the Transgender Protection Act 2018 in Pakistan. The actors disseminated false information mainly via Twitter, Facebook and hate speech in public. They were acting in their professional capacity and were not considered to be the proxy of a foreign government or a foreign actor.
Throughout this case study, it was noted that falsification, manipulation and vilification of facts were the lynchpins of the entire campaign. The actors involved did not hide their identity or worked under the umbrella of any secret organization. The individuals participated in online disinformation campaign against Trans Act acted either within their personal capacity or on behalf of their religious/political leader. No evidence of backend information and illegitimate communication techniques was found in this case. The behavior and activities of actors involved in this case exhibited clear intent of threatening lives and fundamental freedoms.
The information shared, in this case, was false, misleading and devoid of justifiable rationale. The content shared by actors was in line with the known disinformation narrative, i.e. promotion of homosexuality in Pakistan. The content in this case has been disseminated in English and Urdu. The information shared was highly manipulative based on factually incorrect material. The content based on fabricated facts and slander cannot be protected under fundamental freedoms. It was extremely harmful for the vulnerable and marginalized trans community members in Pakistan.
The disinformation campaign has targeted ordinary citizens, racists and people with religious sentiments. The actor via their statements, speeches and Twitter handles distributed the deceptive content and instigated audience. It targeted the most conservative and religious extremist segments of society through tailored content. Hashtags such as “#AmendTransAct” and “#TakeBackTheVulgarBill” were trending. There was evidence of inauthentic boost to online engagement as the actor attempted to make content more popular using religious sentiments. The scale of the campaign involved multiple actors and platforms, thus indicated it was a single ongoing operation.
The content disseminated in this case has been in violation of basic human rights. It has sabotaged trans gender’s fundamental freedom of expression, right to life, identity, and freedom of association. By propagating false information against trans community, the campaign has threatened their physical well-being in the society.
The campaign was analyzed under all elements of the ABCDE framework, i.e., actor, behavior,
content, degree, and effect. The primary actors were state’s representative associated with different political and religious parties. They originated a deliberate disinformation campaign and provided the target audience fabricated and manipulated content. The content was disseminated to the public
through falsified information amplified on the mainstream social media. The primary and secondary actors who participated in the campaign made dissenting hashtags like #ProtestAgainst_TransgenderAct, #TakeBacktheVulgarBill and #AmendTransAct. The way with which this coordinated campaign was conducted points to the inauthentic behavior and back-end coordination. A tweet from the youth club of Pakistan and thread of coordinated tweets in response to Pakistani actress’s stance against trans act suffice to justify the aforesaid behavior.
Besides making deceptive statements the use of social media to propagate false narrative, hate commentary has been used as a tool to suppress the freedom of expression of a trans people. However, the campaign objective to portray some clauses of Transgender Act contrary to Islamic injunction was achieved.
Based on the aforementioned facts and analysis, this campaign has been identified as influence operation.
Albeit the Transgender Rights Act 2018 has guaranteed transgender people fundamental rights, saved them from discrimination in schools, workplaces, public settings and mainly provided them a right to choose their gender on official documents, the state has failed to implement the Act due to the nuisance of disinformation campaign against it. The existence of trans community is at risk in Pakistan.