THEME: NATIONAL SECURITY
Background & context
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA and the subsequent US War on Terror (WoT), Pakistan, particularly its tribal areas, became a hotbed for the fight against terrorism. Pakistan had a strategic interest in keeping the Taliban movement alive as part of its efforts to prevent Indian influence from spreading in Afghanistan. So, while getting US military aid for decades and joining the WoT, it also allowed the Taliban to carve out sanctuaries in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas. But the Afghan Taliban did not cross the border alone. Militants from a complex array of different groups poured into the tribal region, and some were far more hostile to the Pakistani state.
These tribal areas span the entire length of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in two provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The overwhelming majority of these areas are ethnic Pashtun. Because of the prolonged presence and control of the military in these areas – from 2002 to date – if not more, alongside the presence of a wide range of terrorist outfits there, the people are sandwiched between the two. There have been numerous complaints of human rights abuses at the hands of both. The military, it is alleged, has perpetrated violence and other unlawful acts (violating fundamental freedoms, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, larceny, etc.).
It was in response to these conditions that a social movement was founded as the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the protection of the Mehsud) in 2014 for the protection of the human rights of the Mehsud tribe (a Pashtun tribe that is in the majority in Waziristan tribal area). In 2018 it expanded its focus to the entire Pashtun nation and changed its name to Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Movement for the protection of the Pashtun), commonly referred to as its abbreviated form, PTM. It held various well-attended rallies and protest demonstrations against the militancy, the terrorists seemingly having impunity, and what they called state terrorism, i.e., human rights abuses and excesses perpetrated by the military and the government.
PTM rose to prominence when they continued criticizing the military’s role in human rights abuses, an organized injustice meted out to the Pashtun nation by the state and its culpability in dealing with some of the terrorist outfits. But with that, they also invited the wrath of the state, especially the military. Pakistan Army has claimed that PTM is backed by foreign powers, and their gatherings are “engineered”. Among other things, PTM was put under strict media blackout by the military establishment. The massively-attended rallies of the PTM were not shown by the TV channels (privately-owned and state media) allegedly at the behest of the ‘military establishment’. This made PTM rely solely on social media as the primary channel for communicating with the rest of Pakistan. It further strengthened the narrative that the PTM was being persecuted by the state, and the system continually ignored it.
The state institutions (led by the military and the intelligence agencies, the judiciary, and the executive followed suit) kept maltreating and punishing the PTM while the size of its rallies and the morale of the participants kept increasing. Several of the activists of PTM were persecuted, threatened, and kidnapped by the security establishment. It was against this backdrop that the unfortunate incident took place in Kharqamar, a small town of North Waziristan (NW) tribal area in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The details of the incident are described in the following Section.
On May 25, 2019, when two PTM leaders and sitting Members of the National Assembly of Pakistan joined a protest demonstration at the Kharqamar check post in the Boyya area of North Waziristan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the army personnel opened fire at the protesters. Over a dozen people died, and several got injured. The incident was reported as a ‘clash’ between PTM and the armed forces. PTM was vilified for being anti-state and was accused of being terrorists. The organized disinformation campaign was launched against the PTM, using mainstream media and the machinery of the state. The human rights defenders and the PTM activists utilized social media to debunk the disinformation campaign. All efforts of the independent media and observers to get the protesters’ version of events were defeated by the army and the civilian government. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent non-profit organization, was stopped by the army from conducting a fact-finding mission on the Kharqamar massacre. The Fact-finding Mission was later carried out as an overall commentary on the issues related to the tribal areas rather than a focused probe into the Kharqamar incident.
Figure 1 | Screenshots of the tweets made by Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of PTM
Figure 2 | Screenshot of the HRCP tweet while releasing the report
The military’s version of the events, as compiled by the mainstream domestic media of Pakistan, goes like this: the leaders of PTM incited people to violence, who gathered at an army check post at Kharqamar in North Waziristan, close to Afghanistan’s border, and attacked the soldiers. Later that day, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing, told the media that three protesters were killed while ten were injured, in addition to five soldiers who were wounded. The sitting government supported the military’s version of events, while several of the largest opposition parties supported PTM after the incident. Almost the entire media totally blacked out PTM’s or local people’s version of events and ran ISPR’s statement without corroborating from the victims’ families.
Figure 3 | Tweet by a journalist reporting the media talk by ISPR
The version of the PTM leaders and the families of protesters who got killed was not given much space in the mainstream media. They mostly relied on social media. The two lawmakers affiliated with PTM tried raising the issue on the floor of the House whenever they got a chance. Their side of the story was documented by independent organisations like HRCP and international media.
According to one account, a group of local people in Datta Khel, North Waziristan, were protesting on 26th May against the manhandling of a woman and enforced disappearance of two men during an army search operation. As per a fact-finding report by Human Rights Watch, the residents were protesting following the arrest of two men after a military search operation. The search operation was in response to two attacks on army personnel, on May 6th and May 24th, that killed one soldier and injured three others. As per other media reports, a clearance operation was conducted on May 24 in the Doga area of North Waziristan as part of the sanitisation campaign. Troops received fire from Doga village, after which two suspects were taken into custody on May 25th.
Figure 4 | Screen Grab of another tweet with video clip showing unarmed protesters being shot at and falling down
The military insisted that a day after the arrests, MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir incited the people to launch an assault on the Army check post. However, the lawmakers repeatedly stated, while their statements were blacked out from mainstream media, that they had gone to meet the demonstrators at the checkpoint. While they were meeting with the protesters, soldiers opened fire without provocation. Many eyewitnesses later shared the video evidence supporting this version of events. In the video below, the legislator Mohsin Dawar can be seen urging people for restraint while they are crossing the check post. The army personnel are seen stopping them at first but then letting them pass.
HRCP report further documents that to stop the demonstration, the security forces killed at least 13 protesters and PTM supporters and injured over 25 others. The military said PTM members attacked security forces before any shooting began and injured several soldiers, but the army showed no evidence to contradict the witness accounts and videos that largely pointed to the contrary.
Figure 5 | Screen grabs of the tweets with video clips showing how the military personnel fired at the unarmed protesters from behind
The distortion of facts continued by the state institutions and the government, using mainstream media and propaganda accounts on social media. Following the incident, PTM leaders and MNAs Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar were arrested. Based on this disinformation, fake news, and concocted facts, both the lawmakers and some of the protesters were slapped with terrorism charges, among other accusations like treason. Mohsin Dawar was remanded in the custody of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) for eight days after he was arrested in North Waziristan. The two-page Special Situation Report, titled “Clash and Casualties in North Waziristan District”, was submitted to the government by the deputy commissioner of North Waziristan on May 28, provided a detailed account of the incident but did not include the evidence that falsified most part of the military’s side of the story.
A week later, in June, Ajmal Wazir, Adviser to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Chief Minister on Merged Districts, formed a nine-member Jirga to investigate the Kharqamar carnage. But in August that year, the anti-terrorism court turned down the bail petitions of both MNAs. By the June in 2020, instead of pursuing its own “investigation” that incriminated PTM leaders, the government was offering PTM a deal and dialogue. PTM, however, announced to accept the offer for talks but stressed that the authorities should first take confidence-building measures (CBMs) to demonstrate their sincerity.
By July 2020, the media had started reporting that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government had submitted an application to the anti-terrorism court to withdraw the case against the PTM leaders and workers pertaining to a the Kharqamar carnage. The media was still using the words “Kharqamar attack on army check post” because the First Information Report (FIR) registered at the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) against multiple PTM workers had alleged them of attacking the check post.
In October 2020, the anti-terrorism court acquitted both PTM leaders and discharged what it called “the check-post attack case” against Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir after the withdrawal request by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in July.
The entire media kept referring to the extrajudicial killings at Kharqamar check post as ‘check post attack’, “clash between armed forces and PTM activists”, or simply “the incident”. Moreover, the print and broadcast media kept repeating the incorrect number of the killed, i.e., “…at the Khar Qamar check post, in which three people were killed and 15 others injured as a check post in Boyya was attacked during a PTM protest.” In August 2019 though, Dawn newspaper reported the number of the dead as 13, which had been PTM’s claim all along.
A report based on false information, declaring PTM leaders responsible for the Kharqamar carnage was filed by deputy commissioner North Waziristan and was sent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial government. The report claimed that armed men fired at the check post during the incident and injured five Pakistan Army personnel, and killed three attackers.
Figure 6 | Screengrab of one of the propaganda tweets by an account with religious and pro-military leanings
The incidence was reported by national and international media as three people were killed and several dozen wounded Sunday morning when Pakistan’s security forces and protesters skirmished at a security checkpoint in North Waziristan.
Similarly, organized disinformation campaign was run using mainstream media and government machinery, about a slain sepoy allegedly killed during exchange of fire between the army personnel and the PTM protesters. While in reality as reported by international media and the local people through social media, the sepoys got injured, one of whom later passed away, in an attack by the militants on 24th May 2019 at the same check post.
Figure 7 | Screengrab of the video clip in a tweet that shows TV news bulletin with a fake video
Figure 8 | Tweet with a video clip of the news bulletin on a private TV channel iterating the military’s accusation of an armed attack by the PTM
Figure 9 | The Tweet made by a human rights defender carrying the screenshots of propaganda tweets about the Kharqamar incident
State functionaries, security officials, media persons
The primary actors did not hide their identity while posting content or issuing statements.
The content of this disinformation campaign made PTM leaders and activists the target of legal action on false grounds, restricted their freedoms, and persecuted them for exercising their right to protest.
The targeted audience was the ordinary citizens, law enforcement and judiciary
The content involved the pretext of ensuring national security by the government and security officials.
Social media influencers, opinion makers, 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 government officials was threatening and accusatory
PTM activists and local protesters of NW
|Socioeconomic statusThe content involved this thematic area because it had direct bearing on peace in North Waziristan, an area already hit by armed insurgency.|
State officials, individuals, non-state, media, political actors
Means of communication were unlawful (falsification, deliberate distortion of facts)
Much of the content consisted of distortion of facts and baseless allegations. Thus could not be protected under freedoms of expression & information.
Mainstream media and Social media platforms (WhatsApp, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter)
|Human Rights:The content threatened the physical wellbeing and public order in NW and had direct bearing on fundamental freedoms.|
Videos and malicious statements were made through mainstream media and posted on social media platforms / messaging Apps on behalf of the security institutions parroting the latter’s side of the story.
The content was deceptive with false representation of facts. The accusations made by the officials were not verifiable; the claims of the PTM in response to the disinformation campaign, were verifiable.
WhatsApp messages, Facebook and Twitter were used to boost the distribution originally done through the mainstream media.
Backend communication appeared to have occurred when the military officials shared falsified facts with media persons, and coerced the media to blackout PTM and its side of story.
Most of the content (fake videos and pictures) was falsified and manipulated
The disinformation campaign was part of an overall larger campaign against the PTM by the security institutions, using mainstream and social media.
The content was aligned with disinformation narrative
ABCD Framework Analysis
In this unique case study, government officials were the primary actor in an organized disinformation campaign. The case of the Kharqamar carnage was part of a prolonged and coordinated campaign against one target, i.e., PTM, its leaders, and activists. As described in Section I, PTM had made itself the target of the excesses, coercion, and persecution by the state functionaries due to its continued protest and criticism of the military’s policies in tribal areas. Kharqamar incident provided a great opportunity to the officials to not only tarnish the image of PTM as a movement but also target its leaders with legal action and incarceration.
The officials, however, did it with the help of non-state actors, i.e., mainstream media organisations, members of political parties, especially the ruling coalition (PTI, PML, GDA, MQM), and members of organizations of media persons and retired officials’ associations etc. All these actors were visible, contributing to the disinformation and vilification campaign on behalf of the military. However, there was no evidence of collaboration and coordination at an overt official level.
Media platforms largely ran the version of the story given by the military’s media wing or the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while blacking out the local people of North Waziristan or PTM members. It was over a year after the incident that one newspaper (which has been consistently showing keenness to maintain the credentials of independence) gathered the courage to publish an addendum at the end of a news item that read:
Correction: The story earlier erroneously stated that three people were killed in the clash on May 26. It has been amended to reflect the total death toll, which was 13. The error is regretted.
The rest of the media remained partial to the military’s point of view and kept vilifying PTM leaders based on falsified information knowingly.
Members of the ruling political party, PTI, blamed PTM leaders for the “attack” and called them traitor on the floor of the House, in their official capacity as lawmakers. Some of them were even the sitting members of the federal cabinet.
The content of this disinformation campaign consisted of falsified information, distortion of facts, and baseless accusations, which carried a strong element of harm and threat to the targets of the disinformation, i.e., PTM leaders and workers. The campaign resulted in wrongful charges, court cases and detentions of several individuals. The language used for the campaign was charged with hyper-nationalistic emotions, accusatory, and extremely angry. The accusations against the PTM, made by the officials, were proven false based on a heap of evidence that proved the PTM’s side of story. Fake videos and pictures as well as concocted stories were used to substantiate the disinformation.
The disinformation campaign was designed to address ordinary people, especially those having strong nationalist/patriotic sentiments. Through inciting this sentiment among the larger public, an environment was created that necessitated the action by the law enforcement and the judiciary against the targets of disinformation, i.e., PTM. For this purpose, mainstream media, i.e., print, and broadcast media, was used through government machinery, and the content was then distributed through social media. Social media and anonymous/unknown accounts were relied upon to distribute fake videos and photos. This disinformation campaign was part of a larger campaign against the PTM to discredit and eventually dismantle it.
The content involved the national security argument by the government and security officials against PTM leaders and the protesters in the Kharqamar incident. The incident and subsequent disinformation campaign against the protesters and the PTM had direct bearing on the peace in an already troubled area. It had ramifications on the human rights of the people in NW, who were protesting against the enforced disappearances. They were killed and injured for exercising their right to protect and of free assembly. Instead of bringing the perpetrators of violence at Kharqamar to justice, a disinformation campaign was launched against the victims.
The campaign was analyzed under all elements of the ABCDE framework, i.e., actor, behaviour, content, degree, and effect. State actors were the primary actors who originated the deliberate disinformation and distributed it to the public through instructions to and coercion of large media organisations, which points to the inauthentic behaviour and back-end coordination. The scale of this operation could be judged by the variety of influence techniques used to distribute the concocted content. The officials distributed the content through on-record/off-the-record press briefings and through different secondary actors who acted on behalf of the security agencies/government. Moreover, 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., discrediting PTM, incarcerating and jailing the leaders, and finally dismantling or diluting the Movement.
Based on these facts, this campaign has been identified as influence operations.
The campaign directly impacted peace in an insurgency-hit area, the power of the national security establishment, and the basic human rights of the people of NW and the PTM activists. A powerful narrative was constructed, distorting the image of PTM as a violent organization that could resort to violent attacks and killings of the army personnel.
On 26 May 2019, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a rights group for the Pashtun community, held a protest gathering near Kharqamar check post in North Waziristan Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against the military’s excesses and human rights violations in that area. The security forces opened fire and killed at least 13 PTM supporters and injured over 25 others to stop the demonstration. The military said PTM members attacked security forces before any shooting began and injured several soldiers. Still, the army showed no evidence to contradict the witness accounts and videos that essentially pointed to the contrary. Despite all this publicly available evidence, a disinformation campaign was launched against the PTM using mainstream media (newspapers, TV, web portals, etc.). This campaign was unique because it was supported by the government officials against its citizens and created a general apathy towards PTM and Pashtuns’ hardships.