Playing with people’s emotions

'Every time the western media decides what to air, and who to call a terrorist, they generate a lot of debate in our country.' A leading Pakistani digital rights activist on the politics of counter-terror and surveillance.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald Nighat Dad
26 November 2015

Protest against suicide bomb blast at a Karachi mosque.

Protest against suicide bomb blast at a Karachi mosque, January 2015. Demotix/ ppiimages. All rights reserved.

Mary Fitzgerald: First of all, tell me how you came to be at the World Forum for Democracy? What is the work you do and why do you do it?

Nighat Dad: I founded a digital rights foundation in 2012 in Pakistan. But even before founding this organisation I was working on issues like internet freedom, privacy, freedom of expression, access to information, and involved in providing digital security training to journalists and activists, to young women and girls.

I felt that it was very important, instead of working on an individual level, to start a foundation which provided a platform for people to talk about these issues, and also to raise awareness amongst the general public about digital freedoms, which I think is very, very important and relevant now because of the increase in internet users in Pakistan. Also, important in the light of the proposed regulations (and existing laws) which aim to control the internet and technologies, in the name of national security.

Mary: Yes, you told me that using encryption is actually illegal in Pakistan? But then there is also a need to discuss the point at which that hateful speech becomes dangerous speech.

Nighat: Yes. There are some regulations that are written in a very vague and ambiguous language. It doesn't explicitly say that encryption is illegal: but it says that if you want to use encryption you have to get permission from the Pakistan telecommunication authority. Which actually spells death for encryption. The whole point of encryption is to be anonymous, right? The ambiguity of the legislation is really problematic and challenging. Nobody has ever been prosecuted under such legislation, but these sleeping provisions can be used against people who are being targeted by the security authorities.

Mary: This kind of vague catch-all legislation that can be used against you in ways that aren't yet quite defined – do you know of any other countries that are doing that?

Nighat: I know that the Indian IT Act of 2002 was also very problematic because it was supposed to deal with cyber crimes and the challenges around cyber space, but also contained some problematic provisions around censoring and blocking content while offering very vague terminology about whether something is anti-state or not. In Pakistan we would normally say anti-state is anti-army, obscene, immoral, anti–Islam... It was kind of similar to the provisions in the Indian Act as well. But at the same time it is very encouraging to see how the Supreme court of India actually struck those provisions from that law. Pakistan, however, is now going to propose the same kind of provisions in the Cyber Crime Bill to be discussed in our National Assembly very soon. In order to draw the line between hate speech and when this hate speech becomes violent speech, you need to see the social context as well.

Mary: We've heard a lot about protecting freedom of speech online – this is what you campaign for obviously – but what if that speech is hateful, if it's cruel, if it's abusive? Where do you draw the line?

Nighat: There is a lot of debate about when freedom of expression or the freedom of speech becomes hateful speech. But then there is also a need to discuss the point at which that hateful speech becomes dangerous speech. Lots of countries are now enacting legislation to control hate speech: but the interpretation of hate speech varies from person to person.

I'll give an example from my country: again in the proposed Cyber Crime Bill, they have mentioned hate speech against minorities and vulnerable communities. But the language is so broad. So maybe my freedom of expression is hate speech for you and freedom of expression for someone else – it’s a very subjective term. There is existing legislation that, if governments and authorities wanted to actually implement it, they could use to control hate speech against minorities or hate speech against vulnerable groups. But if the existing legislation has never been implemented, what is the assurance that the new legislation or the proposed policies will actually control crimes like hate speech? That's something that I see in Pakistan, that the new laws are mostly aimed at controlling and regulating the internet.

Mary: Violence and abuse of women in Pakistan is a huge problem. Should speech that is incredibly hateful towards women, or speech that gets close to inciting that kind of action be included in the hate speech legislation? Where do you draw the line? This isn't a religious minority, this is half the population, and it’s a massive social problem across Pakistan. After that attack we witnessed how the government started making new legislation and changed the narrative around national security, making it more important than liberty.

Nighat: It’s a very tricky issue to deal with, but I always say that in order to draw the line between hate speech and when this hate speech becomes violent speech, you need to see the social context as well. I've been working on the issue of online harassment for a very long time in Pakistan, and have started doing educational campaigns. I feel that legislative responses are not always the best in dealing with such issues. Massive educational and awareness campaigns are really, really important, how women internet users can secure their communications and deal with these issues by themselves, instead of looking to prosecute, which is again a very, very challenging process for women in Pakistan. They are not always encouraged to go to police stations and file a report, or follow up with the authorities. And then, again, the agencies that are dealing with these issues are really not that popular. I suspect that if women are facing these kind of issues they would never go to federal investigations agencies (e.g. the cyber crime federal investigation agency) and report the crime there.

But in our campaign, we are trying to raise awareness about how to use these spaces securely.

I feel that the major reason for harassment and hate speech is because women don't actually know how to make their communications more secure, or how they can deal with harassment, or even how they can report the crime. So in this campaign we tell them how they can make their communications more secure and how they can report these things to the cyber crime agency. We are trying to build trust between the general masses and the security agencies, that: 'yes, actually they are dealing with the issues so you can report it, and if you don't report it, it wont be resolved.'

Mary: I hear in some of what you say that you can’t just legislate a problem away, and that actually government and civil society would make better use of their time trying to tackle this problem in other ways. Is that how you feel?

Nighat: There is lots of legislation around the issue, but what is lacking is the implementation of that legislation. We don’t need more laws around dealing with harassment, whether online or offline. The government and other authorities should put their energies into implementing existing legislation, because the problem with the introduction of new legislation is that they are doing favours for different authorities.

In the proposed Cyber Crime Bill, the power goes to agencies, in the Anti-Terrorism Act the power goes to the police, in the Pakistan Protection Act the power goes to the army. And they are all dealing with the same issues. So it just confuses the citizens about where to go, and I think it’s very important that they exhaust their energies in implementing the existing legislation, instead of making new ones which are more and more problematic, and just aim to control the internet.

Mary: We're here in France speaking about these issues of surveillance and security at a particularly tense moment. A poll came out just yesterday saying that 84% of French people would now prioritise security over liberty. Do you think that’s the right direction for France; do you think it’s even the right choice?

Nighat: I don't think so

Mary: Do you see it as a real choice?

Nighat: I actually don't think so. Unfortunately, just recently in Pakistan, in December 2014 there was a massive terrorist attack on a school where more than 100 children were killed. It was a very unfortunate and sad moment for Pakistan, and after that attack we witnessed how the government started making new legislation and changed the narrative around national security, making it more important than liberty.

It was very easy to play with people's emotions because at that time the people were very emotional. They were saying that we need to combat terrorism, we need to deal with these terrorists, and we need to do this and that. At the same time, the follow up decisions made by the government were really problematic. They were making new laws and new committees about how to deal with terrorism. Then there was this national plan that was a temporary plan to deal with the security issues in Pakistan, and beneath this plan there was legislation that will be there forever to haunt our generations.

Mary: Give an example of something particularly worrying to you.

Nighat: For instance the Pakistan Protection Act...

Mary: What does that mean in practise?

Nighat: It means you are giving a lot of power to the military. Just imagine, in a democratic state like ours, if we are again going back to this institution which I totally respect, but we have seen lots of authoritarian regimes in Pakistan and I really don't want to see that again.

So why not make decisions where we can see that democracy is there and that it’s prevailing? I'm seeing the same decisions taken by the European nations and by western societies after these terrorist attacks, and I think that they are setting very bad precedents for countries like ours where the argument is very easy for the developing nations: 'why can’t we do it, if the western democracies are already doing it?'.

We are more vulnerable because we are developing countries, and secondly because we are the target of terrorists, we ourselves are fighting this war on terror. So the authorities can validate their argument and can easily change the narrative around national security, and can easily change people's minds.

Mary: I noticed as well the terror attacks in Pakistan in 2014 provided an excuse to bring back the death penalty. And now there are an extraordinary number of people whose convictions are unsafe and they are being executed for crimes, which I understand is popular in Pakistan, but problematic?

Nighat: There was a lot of resistance. But honestly what I feel, Mary, is that the government changed people's minds so much after this terrorist attack on the school, that even people who think that the death penalty was wrong were actually supporting the decision. It’s very difficult for just a few people to challenge a government decision around the death penalty. But I don't know whether executing people can really solve any problem. Every time the western media make decisions on what to air, and who to call a terrorist, they actually generate a lot of debate in our country.

Mary: Why is it that the western media only calls those who abuse the name of Islam terrorists? Why wasn't Dylann Roof called a terrorist, why wasn't Breivik called a terrorist?

Nighat: These are the choices that the western media makes. Every time they make decisions on what to air, and who to call a terrorist, they actually generate a lot of debate in our country. I don't know how to respond to that. But can I mention what happened yesterday?

My family was terrified that I was coming to France. We have seen that there have been some incidents against Muslims, and yesterday I was on a tram. The tram was full and there was this man sitting down: the seat next to him was empty. I wasn't intending to sit there, but when he saw me he actually put his hand on the seat, so that he didn't have to sit next to me. And I felt so bad. I thought to myself, I cannot even resist that. I actually could sense the hate towards me. But I'm lucky that I'm going back to Pakistan. I could sense that hate, it was very difficult for me, to be on the tram for another 5-10 minutes. I actually could sense the hate towards me. But I'm lucky that I'm going back to Pakistan. I could sense that hate, it was very difficult for me, to be on the tram for another 5-10 minutes. I could imagine the kind of hate that Muslims are now facing in the aftermath of these incidents.

Mary: Four people who operated drone attacks came out over the weekend and said that the number of civilian casualties was much higher than as reported by the press and the authorities, and they said it was creating more enemies for America than it was removing. It was very brave, I think of them, that they came out and said that and could be facing all kinds of ramifications for doing that, given their position. You live in Pakistan, which is the focus of so many of these drone attacks. Does their analysis bear out for you?

Nighat: There are different discourses around drone attacks, one part of society believes that it's right, and that that's how we can put a stop to the terrorists. But at the same time there is a huge discourse about whether this violates the sovereignty of the country. And also, how they decide that they are actually killing terrorists? For the operators, it’s like a videogame, where they are killing people without knowing who their targets actually are. And I'm not sure that their target is right every time.

There are so many families who have been affected by these drone attacks, there are so many children who are being disabled, and they can’t even go for a legal remedy because when they go to the Supreme Court even, they cannot prevent it happening. Drones are being operated from the outside, but no drone can be operated without the permission of the sovereign authority in Pakistan. The people are just helpless.

The numbers of those affected by these drones are in the hundreds. It’s not just the US that is operating a drone programme in Pakistan, but also countries like Germany: giving their own land to operate these attacks. The responsibility goes to all these western nations. I’m so lucky I can come to these international panels to talk about the issues and talk about my people and the challenges that we face. But also I feel that people in Pakistan are being affected, and no one is there to listen to them.

Mary: That's why you're here. Thank you.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData