Pakistan: An election under digital surveillance, threatened democracy

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Five years ago when Islamabad got its new government through first electoral transition ever in Pakistan’s history, hopes of a democratic polity taking roots in apparently theological State enlivened not only the embattled country but also its neighbours.

Pakistan is once again in the election season and a week from now the polls are due. Even as the controversial imprisonment –or, more appropriately removal from poll fray –of Nawaz Sharief has been major highlight of latest elections, the quality of democracy, at the grassroots, has already been compromised, threatened and challenged to the core.

Take the example of media or the freedom civil society activists are able to enjoy. They all live under a complete digital surveillance under the obvious jackboots.

The media is the lifeblood of an election. In Pakistan’s context, even at the best of times, both elections and the media are widely believed to be adversely manipulated and influenced not just by corporate interests but also by powerful lobbies with political objectives.

This year, this month, with the July 25 elections less than 10 days away, is an alarming case in point for the country.

The very quality of elections and the project of democratic consolidation is at stake considering that some political parties are screaming murder at being arm-twisted within the electoral process and some media groups are crying foul at being intimidated.

Rights activists in Pakistan are already facing “a targeted campaign of digital attacks”, as Amnesty International in its report in May which warned about the rising threat to campaigners in the country.

Attackers have used elaborate schemes to steal data and install spyware on Pakistani activists’ electronic devices, the watchdog had said in a report. The study — entitled “Human Rights Under Surveillance” — was based on the experience of four activists out of a dozen cases investigated by Amnesty, the report’s co-author Sherif Elsayed-Ali was quoted by AFP as saying..

One campaigner, Diep Saeeda, said she suffered sustained harassment by hackers after calling for the release of activist Raza Khan, who fellow campaigners say was abducted from the eastern city of Lahore in December.

Saeeda told Amnesty that after she started campaigning for Khan’s release, she was lured by a hacker posing as an activist on Facebook into revealing her email address. She was then sent emails disguised as messages from government departments containing malicious links aimed at stealing her passwords and data.

“Every time I open an email I am now scared. It’s getting so bad I am actually not able to carry out my work,” Saeeda told the organisation.

Amnesty documented a series of similar methods used to try to contaminate activists’ computers and phones with malicious software, some of which was created by “a network of individuals and companies based in Pakistan”.

The watchdog said it was unable to identify the entity orchestrating the attacks, but demanded that Pakistani authorities order an “independent and effective” probe. “It is already extremely dangerous to be a human rights defender in Pakistan and it is alarming to see how attacks on their work are moving online,” said Elsayed-Ali in a statement. Human rights activists and journalists are frequent targets of harassment and enforced disappearances across Pakistan, including those critical of the state.

Criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military is largely seen as a red line that few in the country dare to cross.

However, a burgeoning rights civil rights movement by the country’s ethnic Pashtuns and recent comments from ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif have increasingly targeted the security establishment.

Military officials have denied any involvement in the disappearances of rights activists.

 

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