Surveillance of activists


Here in Pakistan, journalists and civil society activists do not need to imagine themselves on the wrong side of a faded and frayed Iron Curtain to understand that Big Brother is watching. This is something that they have long known.
In the past, uniformed men might suddenly appear out of the blue to offer a stern warning. Or else it was quite feasible to return home to find one’s home ramshackled. Either another form cautioning or else the men in the shadows had come and taken whatever it was they deemed to be of value. The mess left behind was, oftentimes, a calling card of sorts.
Presently, these threats still remain. But news ones have emerged; rather in tandem with advances in technology. Social media, especially, has made it harder for state apparatuses the world over to exercise total control over the free-flow of information in or out of nations. This has been seen most recently in the absolutely unjustified use of Israeli military force against unarmed Palestinians. Indeed, the lifeless body of Laila Anwar al-Ghandour, an eight-month-old baby girl who died of tear-gas inhalation, has gone viral to become the face of the Gaza carnage.
Yet social media as well as other means of electronic communication also have a dark side. When, for example, these are used by government agencies to spy on the citizenry — they may then all too easily transform into tools of repression.
Pakistan, a member of the Human Rights Council no less, has appeared on the radar of Amnesty International as a country of grave concern. According to its four-month investigation — Human Rights Under Surveillance: Digital Threats against Human Rights Defenders in Pakistan — a sinister campaign is underway to electronically spy on activists. Extreme measures include: logging passwords; intercepting texts and other messages; activating web cam and microphone functions to record conversations; as well as stealing hard disk data.
To be clear, nowhere in its report does the global rights watchdog implicate Pakistan’s military establishment. Instead, it simply and bluntly calls on the state to come good on its oft-repeated pledges to safeguard human rights; while also criminalising enforced disappearances. Be that as it may, many journalists and civil society activists know who they believe to be behind such moves. Especially when it comes to those who have been targeted over pro-Indo-Pak peace initiatives or who have taken a critical line against the security apparatus.
That the breathing space is rapidly shrinking should be of grave concern to everyone; including the state itself. Media owners and their editors have come under increasing pressure to drop this or that article; with news channels possibly being discouraged from giving due coverage to the Prime Minister’s recent press conference. None of which is in the national interest. For this is authoritarianism by another name.
Pakistanis everywhere demand answers to the same question: when will state deliver on the constitutional guarantees concerning freedom of expression.