Theme: human rights
Background & context
Blasphemy is understood as an act of insulting God. In Pakistan’s law, however, like English law, the definition has been expanded to cover holy personages, scriptures, and worship places. After gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited the legal provisions against blasphemy from the colonial era. The British Empire enacted a blasphemy law in the Indian subcontinent in 1927 to ease religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims. That law criminalized the act of deliberately and maliciously offending the religious sentiments of any religious group. In its original iteration, the law did not discriminate between religions, but revisions to this law after it was adopted in Pakistan have tended to protect the views and beliefs of only Muslims, particularly those of the majority Sunni sect.
Ever since the Islamization started by the military regime under the dictator General Zia ul Haq, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have gradually turned draconian and have been used for legitimized violence in the name of religion. Anyone convicted of blasphemy against Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) is liable to be awarded the mandatory death penalty, defiling a copy of the Holy Quran is punishable with mandatory life imprisonment, blaspheming against several other ‘holy personages’ venerated by the majority Sunni sect but disapproved of by the Shias, is by imprisonment for three years. Ahmadis, a relatively recent sect of Islam believed to be heretics by Sunnis, can be imprisoned for three years for simply posing as Muslims. In recent years, far from prosecution or conviction, the very allegation of blasphemy in any of its myriad forms can lead to vigilante violence.
The mere utterance in a casual conversation, if interpreted as blasphemous by anyone, can lead to the accused being sentenced to death or, worse, lynched by an unruly mob. In the recent past, such allegations have resulted in violent mobs torching entire Christian neighbourhoods, threatening the judges who award acquittals in blasphemy cases, and accusations of blasphemy against the mentally disabled and even children. There is a competition for the worst illustration of anti-blasphemy vigilantism in the cases of the brutal assassination of Governor Salman Taseer by his own guard in January 2011, the violent lynching of a student Mashal Khan by his peers in the university, the case of incarcerations of the Christian woman Aasiya Bibi (now acquitted), and a university professor Junaid Hafeez, alongside scores of vigilante murders and violent attacks on several people and communities.
It was against this backdrop that a malicious disinformation campaign was launched against four bloggers who were strong critics of the military’s policies and had been in the illegal custody of the intelligence agencies, allegedly.
Four men, Salman Haider, a well-known poet and academic, and bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer, went missing or were taken away from different cities in Pakistan between January 4 and January 7, 2017. They all were vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment and used social media to disseminate their views. Their almost simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their blogs and social media accounts raised grave concerns among human rights defenders and aroused strong suspicions of the government’s involvement. Although it was reported in the media on January 7 that Pakistan’s federal minister for interior affairs had directed the police to speed up efforts to locate Salman Haider, about whom the police insisted it was not holding.
After the four activists went missing, accusations of blasphemy and other crimes were levelled against them by anonymous accounts on social media, amplified by some prominent media personalities. This had put their lives in danger, and when they were eventually released, they had to flee from Pakistan to save their lives . Upon their release and subsequent escape from Pakistan, two of them told the media they were tortured while in custody . Although the intelligence agencies and the military kept denying their involvement in abductions of these bloggers, the independent journalists and commentators continued raising concerns and informed suspicions of the contrary .
In late 2016, a man named Salman Shahid approached the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) against the blasphemous content allegedly posted on some social media pages and was assured the bloggers would be booked under blasphemy laws. The complainant was known to have ties to Pakistan’s Red Mosque, a hotbed of Islamic militancy where hundreds were killed in clashes with the security forces in 2007. Following this complaint, the FIA launched an investigation against the bloggers and asked them not to leave the country. Meanwhile, a judicial magistrate allowed the registration of a First Information Report (FIR) against the bloggers. However, in the first week of January, all five bloggers went missing.
Figure 1 | Screengrab of a tweet by journalist & former staffer of Amnesty International
On January 15, another man Muhammad Tahir submitted an application to the police from a platform named Civil Society of Pakistan through a lawyer Tariq Asad who had strong ties with the red mosque clerics and had been representing the Taliban and Al-Qaida’s alleged operatives. In the same week, a campaign was launched by Amir Liaquat Hussain, one of the top TV anchorpersons at Bol TV, a channel alleged of having close ties to Pakistan’s security establishment in addition to its involvement in scandals like money laundering and selling fake degrees. Amir Liaquat kept levelling blasphemy allegations against the bloggers and defended their abduction if done by the intelligence agencies, while accusing them of having fled to India.
Figure 2 | Screengrab of a video clip from the 19th July 2017 TV show of Amir Liaquat Hussain
Video: See from 1:00 to 2:10 minutes. The host says in Urdu:
“As per the latest information, these four men are not missing. They have not been picked up by anyone. I’m informing you with utmost surety, as informed by my sources, that these four men are present in India right now. And they are running those [blasphemous] pages while sitting in India. They are in India, supported by India and India’s R&AW [India’s intelligence agency]. They are working with R&AW and with Ajit Kumar Doval [India’s National Security Advisor, who was responsible for a doctrinal shift in India’s policy towards Pakistan]. Not even one of them is missing. Rather, they have deliberately gone to those areas. India has taken them there. They have once again started running those pages. They are not missing. I’m telling you once again, not even one of them is missing. All of them are present in India, they are with R&AW and are working with Ajit Kumar Doval..”
Amir Liaquat was not the only person who became part of this disinformation campaign involving false blasphemy allegations, but he was one of the most outspoken of them. Soon after his programs (there were several programs over a week), social media accounts made it trend to demand execution of the missing bloggers.
Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told the Islamabad High Court it could find no evidence against the five men, who left Pakistan after they were booked in cases pertaining to publishing and sharing blasphemous content on social media. Subsequently, the court cleared them of all blasphemy allegations in December 2017. In November 2017, controversial anchor Amir Liaquat Hussain, who had been instrumental in propagating the disinformation campaign, announced his resignation from Bol TV. There was no further accountability besides a ban on his TV program that he had repeatedly defied.
Another nuance of this entire episode was the civil-military tensions in the country that were at their peak in those months. While the civilian government was visibly trying to make up for the excesses of the military establishment, the latter was trying to give a message to all liberal, dissenting voices in order to push them into silence. This is why all individuals (media persons like Amir Liaquat Hussain), groups (like the platform Civil Society of Pakistan that filed complaints against the bloggers for blasphemy), the institutions (like Bol TV channel and others), and the social media accounts (like Pakistan Defence on Facebook and many others on different social media platforms) who were known to have close ties with the military, were going in overdrive to accuse the missing bloggers of blasphemy. On the other hand, the individuals and institutions under the ambit of the civilian government were trying hard to allay the effects of the disinformation campaign, and to recover the missing bloggers.
The accusations against the missing liberal bloggers first appeared online soon after their disappearance and were broadcast by several religiously conservative media persons. One of the first blasphemy allegations appeared on 9 January 2017 on the pro-military Pakistan Defence page on Facebook. The post has since been deleted but, at the time, was reported by some of the media. The allegedly blasphemous Facebook pages (Bhensa, Roshni and Mochi) had been around for several years, but the missing bloggers were not linked to them until after their disappearances in January. In the complaint against the said pages in 2016, mentioned in the previous section, neither the bloggers were named nor were they identified in any investigation after that complaint.
Although the families of the missing bloggers kept denying the blasphemy allegations, the zealots, especially those close to the military establishment, remained adamant about propagating the fake news and running the disinformation campaign. So much so that the state media regulator, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), had to ban Amir Liaqat’s daily show on the Bol television channel and prohibited it from appearing on the channel in any manner. However, the powerful Bol TV – which drew power from its close links with the military, brazenly defied the ban and continued to broadcast Amir Liaquat Hussain’s shows. By the end of January, the disinformation campaign was expanded to the activists who were raising a voice for the recovery of the missing bloggers.
The campaign was run through a combination of mainstream media and several accounts on various social media platforms, especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The messages were further amplified through messaging Apps like WhatsApp.
Figure 3 | Screengrab of one of the tweets amplifying the disinformation shared originally on the mainstream media
Parallel to this disinformation campaign accusing the missing bloggers of blasphemy, twitter hashtags like #HangBhensa, #HangMochi, #HangBloggers, and #HangAllLiberals started trending on Twitter. Bhensa and Mochi were names of two Facebook pages where the alleged blasphemous content was posted, and five missing bloggers were accused of being admins of those pages. Although, the investigation agencies found no evidence of that.
Figure 4 | Screengrabs of some of the tweets made under the trend #HangBhensa
Pro-military media persons; social media influencers
The primary actors did not hide their identity while posting content or issuing statements.
The content of this disinformation campaign put the bloggers in immense danger and potential targets of vigilante violence.
The targeted audience was the ordinary citizens, religious and xenophobic segments of society
|Human Rights:The content threatened the physical well-being and safety of the missing bloggers and had direct bearing on fundamental freedoms of expression and information.|
ordinary users of social media and messaging Apps
The content and the behaviour of the primary actors showed clear intent of insinuation, slander and libel.
The language used by the main actors was threatening, accusatory, and instigated hate.
The missing bloggers, and through them, all liberal dissenting voices among the civil society
Individuals, non-state, media
Means of communication were unlawful (false accusations)
Much of the content consisted of baseless allegations. Thus could not be protected under freedoms of expression & information.
Mainstream media and Social media platforms (WhatsApp, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter)
Videos and malicious statements were made through mainstream media and posted on social media platforms / messaging Apps.
The content was deceptive with false accusations, which could not be verified after thorough investigations by civilian federal agencies.
WhatsApp messages, Facebook and Twitter were used to boost the distribution originally done through the mainstream media.
Backend communication was evident from the coordinated actions of police complaints, media onslaught, followed by social media trends.
The content was falsified and consisted of speculations and untrue claims.
The disinformation campaign was part of an overall campaign against the dissenting liberal voices.
The content was aligned with disinformation narrative (influence operations)
ABCD Framework Analysis
The primary actors in this case studies were media persons, who appeared to have been working on behalf of the surety establishment. However, the military spokesperson denied any link to the abduction of the bloggers. The media persons who were at the forefront of the disinformation campaign have long been known as close to the military and had been acting on its behalf in various other matters. The TV channel that took the lead in disseminating the disinformation, i.e., Bol TV, was even rumoured to have been funded and supported by the army.
The main points about the actors to note are:
- Individuals: The primary actors were acting in their professional capacity as part of large media organisations. Their media organisations did not dis-associate themselves with the disinformation campaign, rather, they supported and defended those individuals.
- Non-state Actors: The primary actors were affiliated with non-governmental, corporate organisations, i.e., the media industry. But they appeared to be working on behalf of elements within the state agencies
- Media Platforms: The main platform of distribution, i.e., Bol TV, was considered to be a media arm of the military establishment.
- Political Actors: Although the military and intelligence agencies do not come under the rubric of “organized political entity”, in Pakistan’s context, they are part of, in fact, lead the organized politics. In that sense, the primary actors appeared to be working on their behalf.
- Foreign states: The primary actors were not considered to be the proxy of a foreign government or a foreign actor.
Throughout this case study, it was noted that deception and falsification were the lynchpins of the entire campaign. There was no evidence, not even the slightest indication that the missing bloggers were owners or admins of the pages accused of blasphemy. But since these bloggers had been guilty of criticizing the military policies in the strongest terms, they were punished through this campaign, and a fictional account of their alleged ownership of the blasphemous pages was concocted and propagated.
The following points about the behavioural aspect of the primary actors of this campaign can be noted:
- Transparency: The primary actor(s) did not disguise their identity. However, they concealed the fact that they were working on some other entity’s behalf.
- Dependency: The primary actors appeared to be acting on behalf of the state agencies
- Authenticity: The actors used illegitimate communication techniques by deliberately and knowingly disseminating false information and levelling false and baseless accusations, which were later proven in a court of law and investigations.
- Infrastructure: Any back-end coordination was categorically denied by the military spokesperson. However, there was circumstantial evidence to the contrary (as discussed in the previous sections).
- Intent: The behaviour and activities of the primary actors showed clear intent of malevolence and malice.
The information shared, in this case, was extremely harmful not just for the targeted individuals, i.e., missing bloggers and their families, but also to the overall environment of violent extremism in the society by instigating vigilante violence. The nature of the accusations, i.e., blasphemy against the Holy Prophet, was such that it did not require any deep fake or other synthetic content because in blasphemy cases, producing the evidentiary material is not necessary for the court of people (as opposed to the court of law). The mere allegation of blasphemy without producing any evidence is enough for mob violence. Hence, the false information regarding the missing bloggers being the admins of the blasphemous pages was shared without any evidence. By the time the investigations proved the information wrong, it was already too late, and the bloggers had had to flee the county to undisclosed, safe places in different parts of the world.
The following can be noted about the disseminated content in this case:
- Truthfulness: The content was verifiably untrue
- Narratives: The content could be clearly aligned with the known disinformation narrative
- Language: The most used language was vernacular Urdu. In terms of tone and tenor, the language was hostile, threatening, and accusatory.
- Synthetic: The information shared in this case was false, untrue, and consisted of manipulated, factually incorrect material.
- Expression: Since the content was based on falsification of facts and libel, it cannot be protected under fundamental freedoms.
- Harm: The content was extremely harmful to society (in the sense that it instigated vigilante violence, religious extremism, and xenophobia). It was specifically harmful for the missing bloggers and their families, as it put their lives in danger.
The disinformation campaign, in this case, was targeted at ordinary people, especially those having strong nationalist, patriotic, and religious sentiments. Through inciting these sentiments among the larger public, an environment was created against not only the missing bloggers but also all the liberal and dissenting voices, especially those who were taking a stand for the bloggers. For this purpose, mainstream media, i.e., print, and broadcast media, was used, and the content was then distributed through social media. Social media and anonymous/unknown accounts were relied upon to repeat the false accusations of blasphemy and demands to execute/hang the bloggers. This disinformation campaign was part of a larger strategy to silence the liberal dissenting voices.
Figure 5 | Two images that were tailored to be shared on WhatsApp and other messaging Apps
The following points can clarify the scale of the disinformation campaign:
- Audience: the target audience was the conservative, religiously inclined, violently extremist, and xenophobic segments of society.
- Platforms: Mapping the platforms disseminating the disinformation wasn’t difficult, except for the WhatsApp messages due to encryption software
- Virility: The hashtags were trending on Twitter within a matter of a few hours. Also, most of these tweets vanished when Twitter purged hundreds of accounts engaged in inauthentic behaviour in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
- Targeting: The content mostly targeted the most conservative and religious extremist segments of society through tailored content, as shown in Figure 6 below and other screengrabs in previous sections.
- Scale: The scale of the campaign involved multiple actors and platforms, thus indicated it was a single ongoing operation.
Figure 6 | An illustration of how the platforms used to disseminate the content in harmony with each other
The content disseminated as part of this campaign had a serious impact on the climate of debate in overall society because it targeted the dissenting voices and put them in danger by propagating false accusations of blasphemy. It denied the fundamental freedom of expression, right to life and physical safety, and freedom of association.
The campaign was analyzed under all elements of the ABCDE framework, i.e., actor, behaviour, content, degree, and effect. The primary actor was a specific segment of mainstream media whence originated a deliberate disinformation campaign. The content was disseminated it to the public through falsified information amplified on social media. In parallel to this, a legal process was started by filing police complaints and petitions in a court of law. The actors involved were the complainant/petitioner, the media persons who propagated it in their daily prime-time TV shows, and the social media influencers who participated in the campaign and made the dangerous and accusatory hashtags trend. All these actors had one common thread, i.e., their relationship with the powerful military establishment and their alignment with religiously conservative views. The precision with which this coordinated campaign was conducted points to the inauthentic behaviour and back-end coordination.
In addition to the mainstream media, social media platforms, including messaging Apps, were used to propagate fake content. In the end, the desired objective was achieved, i.e., silencing the critics of the military establishment.
Based on these facts, this campaign has been identified as influence operations.
The campaign directly impacted the physical security of the primary targets (missing bloggers) and the fundamental freedom of expression and free speech of the primary and secondary actors (liberal/dissenting voices within civil society). A powerful and effective campaign was conducted with false blasphemy allegations by the missing bloggers and even their supporters, which could end with extremely dangerous consequences.
In 2017, the intelligence agencies allegedly picked up four bloggers for their anti-army and anti-religion posts. They were released a few months later, but they had to escape from the country to save their lives after a vicious and organised campaign against them was launched while they were in custody, accusing them of blaspheming against the Prophet. Before that, Mashal Khan, a university student, was charged with blasphemy using photoshopped screenshots of his Facebook posts. He was eventually lynched to death on campus by his fellow students. These accusations using social and traditional media have created an environment of fear and insecurity among the religious and ideological minorities who feel threatened by their vulnerability in society