Pakistan is investigating over a dozen NGOs for allegedly promoting blasphemy and pornography on social media – a potentially deadly move dismissed by rights activists as the latest in an ongoing crackdown on civil society.
The country’s Federal Investigation Agency’s cybercrime wing started the investigations last week, deputy director Nauman Ashraf told IRIN.
“These NGOs and some of their employees want to create chaos and anarchy in the country by hurting the sentiments of the people,” he said.
The news comes in the wake of the killing of a student by a mob in the city of Mardan after he was accused of blasphemy. NGO workers say the government’s investigation is not only unfounded – it could also put staff in danger.
“This was the last thing we were expecting from the government and its investigating agencies,” said an employee of an international NGO on condition of anonymity. “We are seriously thinking of winding up all our operations in the country.”
Mehdi Hasan, chairman of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, said the investigations are part of a wider campaign by the government to silence civil society and stifle dissent.
“Religious fanatics and some elements in the government are behind the campaign against the NGOs,” he told IRIN. “They label all of them as agents of the west and see them as promoters of a western agenda in Pakistan, which is ridiculous.”
The government has for years used the legal and regulatory systems to pressure NGOs.
In 2015, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Pakistan, and the police forced a temporary shutdown of Save the Children.
At the time, government sources told IRIN that Save the Children had attempted to conceal its links with Shakil Afridi, the doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination campaign to gather information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals in 2011.
Save the Children told IRIN that the allegations were ridiculous.
In January, the Interior Ministry sent letters to about a dozen NGOs in Punjab Province ordering them to cease operations and accusing them of “pursuing an anti-state agenda”.
Ashraf refused to say which NGOs were under investigation, but he said they included both national and international organisations. He said the NGOs are accused of disseminating pornographic and blasphemous content through social media, but offered no details.
People convicted of blasphemy can face the death penalty in Pakistan. But even the suggestion that someone has committed blasphemy can lead to deadly vigilante and mob attacks, as occurred in Mardan this week. Police have reportedly arrested about 100 people suspected of beating one student to death and injuring two others.
The charge of blasphemy is often used to target religious minorities, according to Human Rights Watch. The group said in its 2016 annual report on Pakistan that at least 19 people are on death row after being convicted of the charge, and hundreds more are awaiting trial.
In an attempt to “muzzle dissenting voices”, HRW said Pakistan last year “passed vague and overbroad cybercrimes legislation installing new curbs of freedom of expression and criminalising peaceful internet use.”
Ashraf said NGO staff “should not get scared of the ongoing investigations if they are innocent.” He added: “We are investigating them as per the law of the land.”
(TOP PHOTO: Civil society activists demonstrate in Islamabad in January for equal education for boys and girls. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN)