Islamabad: Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested at least eight people as it launched a crackdown on social media activists who it says have been allegedly involved in a smear campaign against institutions, especially the army. The arrests were mainly made in Punjab province.
The FIA counterterrorism wing began action against social media activists after Imran Khan was ousted by a no-confidence motion on April 10. Tens of thousands of Khan’s supporters have marched in the streets and are voicing their opinions online, demanding immediate, free and fair elections which they believe would bring Khan back into the prime minister’s office.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) challenging the “raids and harassment” of the party’s social media activists. Hours after the removal of the previous government, the residence of the former social media focal person to ex-prime minister, Dr Arslan Khalid, was raided by unidentified persons. PTI has filed a petition maintaining that the freedom of expression was a fundamental right of every citizen, and pleaded to prevent illegal harassment of party workers.
“I am safe and back at home. Thanks for the support by everyone” Arslan wrote on Twitter on April 13 after several Twitter users inquired about his wellbeing. Arslan shared in a Facebook post that his house was “raided and ransacked” just before the Sehri time hours after Khan was deposed. With emotions running high in the country, Arslan asked Imran Khan’s supporters to struggle for true democracy only through peaceful means.
PTI has claimed that their team never abused nor attacked anyone on social media. Azhar Mashwani, the former focal person on digital media to Punjab chief minister, told local media PTI’s team of social media included some 800 volunteers but they never encouraged or initiated any objectionable trend.
Amnesty International also condemned the arrest of eight people. “The Pakistani authorities must stop using the draconian Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act to punish people who are simply exercising their right to freedom of expression online,” said Amnesty International’s South Asia Research Director, Dinushika Dissanayake, adding the law has been used “as a tool to crush peaceful dissent and intimidate supporters of political opposition.”