March 30, 2020

Amidst digital crackdown, religious minorities strive to create safe spaces online

Amir Mahmood is especially busy around this time of the year. A lot of his time is dedicated to gathering and compiling data for annual reports that look to sum up a year’s worth of incidents. This year, like any other, he had to keep track of the number of individuals from his community who were targeted, harassed and killed owing to their religious identity.

Amidst his busy schedule, Mahmood, who is in-charge of the Ahmadiyya media cell, was kind enough to take time out for a brief discussion on the work he’s doing. This currently includes following up with the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) with regards to the community’s complaint against the national broadcaster Pakistan Television (PTV) for airing a video in October linking the Ahmadis to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India.

Around late afternoon of November’s final Tuesday, we find the corner table in the basement of possibly Lahore’s least frequented outlet of a renowned coffeehouse – none of which is a coincidence. Over the next two hours, Mahmood narrated a few of the incidents that would be highlighted in the soon to release ‘Persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan 2019’ report. He reveals that the digitised version of the annual reports are now being published on a website dedicated to highlighting the persecution of the community.

The website, www.persecutionofahmadis.org, is one of three digital portals which have dedicated databases related to the Ahmadiyya community, along with www.ahmadiyya-history.org and a third website reproducing the name of which would breach Ordinance XX of the Pakistan Penal Code, which bars Ahmadis from “posing as Muslims”.

The third website is blocked across all internet service providers in the country, while the first two are varyingly accessible.

“The websites blocked in the country actually highlight the Ahmadiyya community’s contributions in the creation of Pakistan.”

– Amir Mahmood

“Now after this article is published, the other two will be banned by the PTA [Pakistan Telecommunication Authority] as well!” joked Mahmood, conceding that the fact that the websites are already blocked by some service providers underlines that they are already under the Authority’s radar.

The Mahmood-led media cell has reports and data related to the Ahmadiyya community going as far back as Partition. In recent times, the media cell has been working on digitising the entire database with the above mentioned websites providing the space for the archives.

“The online platforms have more reach and accessibility, when it comes to spreading awareness about the struggles of the community,” Mehmood says.

“We have data going back to 1947. Unfortunately, the websites blocked in the country actually highlight the Ahmadiyya community’s contributions in the creation of Pakistan. Of course, the persecution of the community significantly increased after Ordinance XX was passed in 1984, which is why a vast majority of the data we are looking to digitise is from the past 35 years,” he adds.

Little over an hour after we left the coffeehouse, the Facebook page Nawa-E-Masihi uploaded a YouTube link to a part of Raza Ali Abidi’s 1991 documentary Sher Darya which narrates the story of a Christian missionary hospital in Kohistan.

Founded on August 22, 2012, Nawa-e-Masihi is a digital publication dedicated to the Christian community in Pakistan. With multiple posts in a day, the Nawa-e-Masihi is a fully functioning online newspaper, which incorporates multiple digital platforms for its coverage of local and international updates, including social media, email, texts, messaging apps and other multimedia tools.

Over the last few months, the publication has brought to the fore exclusive reports on a thakaydaar deducting up to 25% from the basic wages of his Christian workers in Faisalabad and a controversy surrounding a Christian woman’s burial near Sargodha.

The Founder and Editor of Nawa-e-Masihi, Shakeel Anjum Sawan said during our conversation on the phone, “The aim was to create an online platform to share updates and spread awareness related to the Pakistani Christian community. Now we are growing towards forming online databases for all kinds of information related to Pakistani Christians. Nawa-e-Masihi aims to be the link within the community, while simultaneously forming a bridge with other communities.”

Based entirely on a team of volunteers, the publication is modeled on a traditional newspaper with its reporters, called ‘coordinators’, spread across the country. Like any other prominent digital media outlet, Nawa-e-Masihi has its social media desk, video in-charge and other editorial heads.

Over the last few months, the publication has brought to the fore exclusive reports on a thakaydaar deducting up to 25% from the basic wages of his Christian workers in Faisalabad and a controversy surrounding a Christian woman’s burial near Sargodha.

“In both cases, the authorities only sprung into action after Nawa-e-Masihi brought the developments into the limelight. There was also a case a couple of years ago when sewage water had seeped inside a Christian graveyard in Lahore. Nobody was taking any action until Nawa-e-Masihi rallied for the cause, prompting the [then] Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz lawmaker Mary Gill to take note,” says Sawan. 

The Nawa-e-Masihi Facebook page, which now has almost 65,000 followers, has become an online community for Pakistan Christians, Shakeel Anjum Sawan believes, which allows everyone a platform to share their issues and bring them to the fore.

The Pakistan Hindu Youth Forum, another page with over 30,000 followers, experienced firsthand the utility of social media in spreading awareness and also generating mobility for a cause. When medical student Nimrita Kumari was killed in September, the Pakistan Hindu Youth Forum created a Facebook Event to launch a protest, which eventually saw rallies in Karachi demanding #JusticeForNimrita.

“Almost half of the protestors at Teen Talwar in Karachi, belonging to different religions, had signed up for the Facebook event,” says Pakistan Hindu Youth Forum Founder Rohit Rai Duhlani.

The Pakistan Hindu Youth Forum is formed by 10 young Pakistani Hindus from Karachi, including students, entrepreneurs and even government officials. Duhlani himself is a young businessman who took time out to share the work of this online forum from Iran, where he was on a business trip.

“At least 80% of the Hindu students had to miss their exams last year. The government does allow Hindus holidays on our religious festivals, but how does one take a holiday when an exam is scheduled? We feel it should be a public holiday.”

Rohit Rai Duhlani

“Over the past five to six years, the Pakistan Hindu Youth Forum has been dedicated towards highlighting the issues faced by the Hindu community, while simultaneously working on ensuring progress within the community as well,” he says.

Duhlani quotes Diwali 2018 as an example where the Pakistan Hindu Youth Forum became the spokesperson for the local Hindu community, more specifically the students in Karachi. Last year’s schedule for several major Karachi-based universities saw exams coinciding with Diwali on November 7.

“At least 80% of the Hindu students had to miss their exams last year. The government does allow Hindus holidays on our religious festivals, but how does one take a holiday when an exam is scheduled? We feel it should be a public holiday,” Duhlani says, revealing that after engagement with university administrations it was ensured that university exams did not coincide with Diwali this year.

Since 1986, over 1500 blasphemy cases have been registered in the country, including at least 75 killings related to blasphemy allegations.

Where administrative issues at educational and government institutions, or economic plight of the working class members, form hurdles of varying degrees for the religious communities arguably the greatest challenge for them comes from the radical Islamist groups and organisations in the country.

Among the greatest predicaments for the religious minorities in Pakistan, specifically the Hindu community in Sindh, is forced conversion. Over 1,000 girls, a majority of them Hindus, are forcibly converted to Islam every year, according to the latest Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report.

The Pakistan Hindu Youth Forum covers incidents of violence against the Hindu community, including forced conversions, but that comes at a cost.

“We get threats from many people online and our page gets reported as well. On the other hand, when we post something positive about Hindus in Pakistan, a lot of Indian trolls start abusing us and then they start reporting our page,” reveals Rohit Rai Duhlani.

Another major concern for the religious minorities is the blasphemy law. Pakistan is one of 13 states where blasphemy against Islam is punishable by death.

While there hasn’t been any judicial execution over blasphemy in Pakistan, since 1986 – the year Islam specific clauses were added to the Pakistan Penal Code, including the capital punishment – over 1500 blasphemy cases have been registered in the country, including at least 75 killings related to blasphemy allegations.

The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy who was released last year after almost a decade in prison, underlines the potential suffering that a false allegation of sacrilege can result in.

The 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), known commonly as the cybercrime law, in effect brought the blasphemy law into the digital realm. June 2017 saw the first death sentence issued for ‘digital blasphemy’ in the country when Taimoor Raza, a Shia Muslim, was charged with blasphemy.

The timeline of the events from the passage of PECA to the PTA’s campaigns appeared, to many, as a planned crackdown on online anonymity in Pakistan.

Nighat Dad’s Digital Rights Foundation has been among a few organisations that rallied against what they dubbed the cybercrime law’s ‘draconian clauses’ and ambiguous verbiage. Rights activist Dad is among many who have noted what she deems is a ‘deafening silence’ on many online platforms since PECA was passed little over three years ago.

“Not just minorities, I notice how many liberal and secular Muslims have been silenced on social media over the past three years. Many pages that had been extremely active have either stopped existing or have become inactive,” Dad says while speaking over a secure digital medium, something she advises everyone to do.

Little over four months after PECA was passed, four secular bloggers and activists, many of whom were running controversial Facebook pages, were abducted in January 2017. After being released, they revealed stories of torture at the hands of state authorities. By March 2017, cell phone users nationwide were receiving text messages from the PTA asking everyone to ‘report blasphemous content’.

The timeline of the events from the passage of PECA to the PTA’s campaigns appeared, to many, as a planned crackdown on online anonymity in Pakistan. Nighat Dad says that the state’s digital crackdown is still targeting the safe spaces.

“Since the passage of the cybercrime law our activity has been reduced by 70%, and we are significantly more conscious about what we post online.”

Shakeel Anjum Sawan

“They are now monitoring Facebook and WhatsApp. I advise everyone to use Signal instead. We are still fighting for our Constitutional right to privacy for which a comprehensive personal data protection legislation is needed,” Dad says.

In the meantime, as the state is being pushed to review existing legislation, pass new laws, and create transparency in the enforcement of PECA, the religious minorities continue to be wary of their online activities.

Over the past three years, there has also been a scramble to review past online activities after two Christian brothers from Lahore were sentenced to death in December 2018 by a district court for articles that they had posted online in August 2010.

“Up till 2017, Nawa-e-Masihi had multiple active WhatsApp groups, where a lot of our coordination and work was done. We no longer work on WhatsApp. We are similarly careful on Facebook now as well. Since the passage of the cybercrime law our activity has been reduced by 70%, and we are significantly more conscious about what we post online,” Sawan says.

Both Rohit Rai Duhlani and Shakeel Anjum Sawan reveal that infiltration of radical elements within their working groups has been a major concern for the digital portals in recent years. What has also added to the problems faced by these pages is the Facebook administration’s actions.

“Our content is entirely in Urdu, and those at Facebook don’t seem to be equipped in dealing with the complaints lodged against us and the flagged posts. They feel any post that has a religious angle coming from Pakistan should be taken down if there are sufficient complaints against it,” the Nawa-e-Masihi editor adds.

“The National Action Plan that promised curbs on hate speech started with banning our literature. The cybercrime law that vowed to secure online spaces started with blocking our websites.”

Amir Mahmood

Rights activists accuse social media platforms like Facebook of being complicit in the persecution of marginalised groups that are being targeted with the state compliance, or acquiescence, around the world.

In Pakistan, critics also note that the National Action Plan (NAP) passed by the state in 2015 appears to be shielding the oppressors, not the oppressed.

In 2017, while the online crackdown was being carried out, the radical Islamist group Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, rose to prominence. The TLP, which spews vitriol against the Ahmadiyya and Christian communities, has since contested the general elections of 2018. And despite its leadership being charged and put under arrest last year, the group’s online presence remains unchallenged with the official TLP website still openly glorifying convicted terrorist Mumtaz Qadri on its home page.

“The National Action Plan that promised curbs on hate speech started with banning our literature. The cybercrime law that vowed to secure online spaces started with blocking our websites,” maintains Amir Mahmood.

Even so, despite the many challenges, both at the hands of the state and the elements that it seemingly isn’t willing to eliminate, the religious minorities continue to strive for their safe spaces online, to lift their own communities and in turn help play their part in the progress of the country.

Nawa-e-Masihi will continue to do our bit for the Christian community and for our country. We want to play our part in Pakistan’s progress, just like Christians played their part in the creation of Pakistan,” Shakeel Anjum Sawan.

Written by

Khuldune is a Lahore based journalist.

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