Journalists around the world are increasingly falling victim to various kinds of violence and intimidation backed by either the authorities, political parties or their supporters. The Freedom of the Press report for 2017 by Freedom House suggests that there’s a global downward trend for press freedom “driven by unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies, intensified crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian settings.”
Despite democracies around the world claiming and advocating for strong freedom for journalists and press freedom on international platforms, the local conversation and situation always seems to be contradicting the statements said by the leaders on cameras and to larger audiences.
For instance, in July 2019, during a joint press conference with US President Donald Trump, Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, claimed that media is free in Pakistan, adding, “it is not just free but sometimes it is out of control”, when in fact, journalists are being detained and arrested for doing their jobs. They’re being intimidated to self-censor, news organisations are being threatened to take down content that challenges state policies or the military establishment, funding to the media outlets has been stopped forcing publications to shut down, and journalists are harassed and constantly fear for their lives.
These attempts to silence fact-based reporting doesn’t only affect reporters on a personal level, but has dire consequences on freedom of expression and press in the country – two rights that are protected under the Constitution of Pakistan.
On occasions like this, journalists increasingly self-censor while reporting on sensitive issues that question the policies or actions of the state.
Journalists Ramsha Jahangir and Umer Ali reported on one such sensitive story that not only raises a lot of questions in terms of crackdown on civil liberties in Pakistan, but also asks difficult questions to the authorities about their attempts to stifle the right to privacy and data protection of the citizens as government moves to increased digitisation.
The story, published in Coda Story – a New York-based online crisis reporting news platform, highlighted the agreement between Pakistani government and a Canada-based company Sandvine that specialises in equipment for surveillance, to extend the government’s plan to monitor online content through a Web Monitoring System that they announced in early 2019.
Sandvine had been in the news before when Canadian think tank Citizen Lab found its involvement in authoritarian countries like Egypt, Turkey and Syria to spy on citizens. The implications of such a program’s implementation in Pakistan will result in rights advocates, journalists and political dissidents to censor themselves or disproportionately targeted by the authorities.
In Pakistan, given the hostile environment that journalists work in, just reporting on such development can potentially cause harassment or targeted campaigns against them in attempts to discredit their reports, or to silence them.
Digital Rights Monitor (DRM) spoke to Ramsha and Umer to understand the kinds of obstacles they had to consider before finally publishing this story.
DRM: How did you find out about Sandvine being sourced for the web monitoring system by PTA?
Umer Ali (UA): The first time I heard about Sandvine being used was in a report in Dawn.It was the initial stages of the senate committee hearings and there was something about this controversial firm being used and how it was apparently connected to Israel. I looked it up, and then I saw some statements by Azam Swati – the minister of parliamentary affairs – and by a reporter from Associated Press Pakistan (APP) which is a government agency, so I thought it’s official, and that it has definitely being said. So I started looking it up and I talked to a few people, a few digital rights activists and they had also no clue but just as much that Sandvine is based in Canada, it’s controversial, and Pakistan is probably going to hire its services. So that was how I learned about it, and then I started looking up online, and I did some research and found out people who were apparently working for Sandvine in Pakistan for different projects, and I wasn’t sure. It took me a lot of time online, and talking to a lot of people, and obviously I pitched the story, and then I thought Ramsha was already on it so I contacted her and we decided to do it together.
Ramsha Jahangir (RJ): The speculation was first raised in the Senate committee and reported in Dawn. I wrote about concerns raised over plans to establish the monitoring system which the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) had confirmed on record but refused to share further details. Then we dug deeper and spoke to LDI [Networks] and telecom operators who eventually shared the contract with us, confirming Sandvine’s involvement.
DRM: What were the initial challenges you had to face to confirm that the reports of Sandvine being sourced were in fact correct?
UA: I saw some initial reports online by Dawn and by other newspapers, and there was this really confusing statement about how PTA has taken undertakings from Inbox [Business Technologies] and Sandvine to ensure there is no security breach, but at the same time PTA is denying that it has signed any contract. So it was really confusing, it was a lot of misstatements, and overall it was just really odd, and took me a while to completely get myself on board with the idea.
RJ: Despite being repeatedly approached, the PTA did not give us elaborate responses. The chairman was not available for interview and we got one liner comments. They refused to acknowledge Inbox/Sandvine’s involvement. The Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) also refused to comment. We were reliant on third parties till we got hold of the contract.
DRM: How long did you consider reporting on it? And how long did it take you to gather all the information and finally draft the story?
UA: I think I started working by the end of May or beginning of June 2019. Since then till the end of September, and finalised the story a week before it was published, so you can see how long it took.
RJ: 3-4 months
DRM: Did you at any point think that you don’t want to associate yourself with this report because of the potential consequences?
UA: I was aware of the potential consequences, and Ramsha told me that she has been having trouble with PTA for her reporting in the past. And honestly, because I live outside of Pakistan so I didn’t really worry about the consequences as much as I was worried about her. I remember we had these conversations while reporting on it and I wasn’t sure if it’s safe enough but as a reporter, especially if you’re reporting on an exclusive story like this and you have spent a lot of your time on it, I think you really want to own the story as well. And that was the case for both of us.
RJ: No, but we did expect certain quarters to be unhappy with the reporting. Due to the report’s sensitive nature, the editor asked me to stay safe and careful around the report’s release.
DRM: Did sources refuse to speak to you? If yes, why?
UA: There were a couple of sources that refused to talk to me. I got in touch with some people who work at Inbox Technology, for example. One of them was able to speak to us, one of them refused, there were some other people as well. I think because of the lack of transparency and lack of information on record, so they didn’t want to be the people who brought in on record. Although I gave them assurance that it will be anonymous, and I wouldn’t name them, but I absolutely understand why they weren’t comfortable talking to a journalist.
DRM: What challenges did you anticipate as an aftermath of the article going public, before the report was published?
UA: I knew it was going to be a big story, I knew there’s going to be a backlash, but I didn’t honestly think that I would wake up one morning and would see notifications of PTA responding angrily to my tweets where I posted the story. It was a very angry tweet and it didn’t feel like it was an actual government department tweeting at me. It was kind of surreal as well, I remember waking up and be like ‘oh my god, what happened?!’ It was ‘PTA replied to your tweet’, and then I saw the tweet.
DRM: Did you take any precautions for your safety before you published the story? Were there any concerns of surveillance or digital security breach?
UA: When I spoke with my sources and when I shared some of the material, I used Signal for the security. But because no one really knew that we were working on it, and I remember even when Ramsha reached out to PTA, for example, they didn’t have any idea at that point that we had a lot of evidence to support our story. Out of habit, I use encrypted platforms but I wouldn’t say I took any extraordinary precautions for it.
RJ: Yes, and since I report on these issues regularly, I do take digital security measures.
DRM: While writing the story, were you able to freely report on the matter without censoring important information? Or was censorship a huge part of writing the article? If yes, what did you think would happen if you didn’t censor?
UA: I’ll be honest, because it’s a story for an international outlet so there are no editorial policies which force you to censor yourself. So I don’t think I censored myself, although there are a few things that I could be more vocal about or maybe I could add a little bit of my own voice in the reporting. But if I think about it, there was only this one instance where a source told me a very important incident related to the monitoring and surveillance system we had in the past. That was the only thing that I had to censor in my reporting.
RJ: It was an international publication so there was not much censorship. However, we were careful to not add a few sensitive bits to the story.
DRM: Why did you choose to publish the story in an international publication, and not in a local news outlet?
UA: The first reason is that I was already working for Coda as a freelancer, and I was in touch with my editor. We were exchanging new ideas, so I thought it only made sense to do it for them. But obviously I knew it for sure that under the current circumstances in Pakistan, where media outlets are being censored and journalists are facing witch hunt, I wasn’t sure if any outlet in Pakistan would be willing to run my story uncensored.
RJ: Coda expressed interest in covering the story.
DRM: Did the authorities try to contact you at any point after the report was published?
[Both journalists declined to comment on this]
DRM: As a journalist, do you think the pressure that you had to deal with, if at all, while reporting on a sensitive topic like this was undue? What could have been different if the stress wasn’t there?
UA: Absolutely! I didn’t consider a lot about being cautious or being worried because I live outside Pakistan, but obviously it’s not like I’m living abroad forever. And I’m very conscious about the reality that critical journalists are not welcomed in Pakistan, and how they have faced trouble in the past. And it defines the way I do my journalism, the way I use social media, for example. Although I keep trying to push my boundaries, but there are issues that you can’t really escape them. If I didn’t have this pressure that no one is going to come after me, then I’m pretty sure I might have been able to explore the topic in more detail and I’d have probably been able to talk to more sources because they’ll also be less fearful of the consequences. It definitely does have a big impact on how you report on things.
RJ: Could have reported more freely and better access. The fact that people who spoke to us were self censoring and chose to name certain quarters involved, limits the extent of investigative reporting.
DRM: As a journalist, do you anticipate more challenges now that the report is published?
[Both journalists declined to comment on this]
DRM: What, in your opinion, is the reason of this hostile environment against journalists in Pakistan? Government representatives repeatedly said on international platforms that media is free in Pakistan despite a very different ground reality. What is your take on this?
UA: This hostile environment for journalists in Pakistan is not just limited to journalism anymore. It has engulfed activism, politics, all sorts of things. I think the government now wants absolute conformity from people. And we had these red lines since decades by the state, but I think now they’re trying to narrow those red lines. One of the reasons for this is definitely related to the internet because the kind of movement, the kind of criticism on military that we have seen over the past few years is really saying a lot. For example, PTM was so vocal, PML-N, and other opposition parties, activists have started talking openly about the role of the military in politics and how it’s impeding progress in Pakistan, and everything else related to this. So I think journalists lead that conversation, they provide essential information to the public so they have their talking points. So I think that is why the state is so hostile towards journalists and activists in general.
RJ: The fact that I don’t want to be quoted on this answer should convey how things really are.
DRM: Was the experience worth the trouble?
UA: I would say that this whole experience was worth the trouble because I ‘m very glad that I broke a story which was of public interest. I personally believe that public interest always triumphs national interest because the latter always changes but the former always remains the same, and I adhere to that idea.
RJ: So far, yes.
DRM: Any suggestions to other journalists who have been holding themselves from reporting on sensitive issues?
UA: I honestly don’t have any suggestion for the journalists who don’t report on sensitive issues because I feel like I’m very privileged that I have the safety net of being outside Pakistan, of being affiliated with an international news outlet, of support of the people in international activist and journalist groups. This is a big factor which helps me in being more critical and report on more critical topics. And I absolutely understand how bad things are back home and how difficult it is for journalists to report. So honestly, me giving a lecture to journalists on how they should report on sensitive issues would be me being blind by my privilege and I don’t want to be that person.
RJ: In times like these, some risks are not worth taking.