As if surveillance and privacy violations today weren’t getting terrifying enough, we have entered another cycle of attacks on the liberal community and human rights activists with the start of 2017, in the form of ‘disappearances’ of as many as nine vocal human rights activists.

Four activists have been confirmed missing in the past one week. Aasim Saeed and Ahmad Waqass Goraya disappeared on January 4, followed by Salman Haider on the 6th, and Ahmad Raza Naseer on the 7th. Samar Abbas also disappeared on January 11. Both Saeed and Goraya have been very vocal about their leftist and secular views, and their campaigning for Baloch rights. Salman Haider, a gender studies professor and vocal human rights activist, is known for his poetry and activism against religious fanaticism and violence, including the plight of people and activists from marginalised communities. Samar Abbas is an outspoken human rights activist and the President of the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan.  The few things common among all five activists, it seems, are their progressive and secular opinions, their views on Balochistan, and criticism of the state. Despite a flurry in the Parliament regarding the disappearances, the Interior Minister’s direction regarding recovering Salman Haider was considered highly insufficient and unsatisfactory, and resulted in a walkout by all of opposition.

With the disappearance of these activists, several liberal and secular Facebook pages and Twitter profiles have also disappeared. Pages like Bhensa, Roshni and Bol Platoon were taken down, their Twitter presence erased, in the same timeframe as the disappearances.  With the disappearances of these pages, new ones with the exact same names and sometimes same display pictures sprung up, sometimes posting either celebratory content on the deletion of these pages and disappearance of activists.

Following the disappearances, protests were organized by human rights organisations, friends and students of Salman Haider outside the Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore press clubs on Tuesday.  This incident of disappearances has also garnered global coverage and BBC has reported hundreds of protests across the country.  The Guardian has also reported how the disappearances have suddenly sparked fear of a possible, brutal crackdown on leftist and secular activists all over Pakistan. Today, the protestors themselves are being outed on ‘ultra-nationalist’ pages like Comics by Naazgul Baloch, immediately endangering their lives by relating them to the disappeared Facebook pages.

Right after the disappearances, pages like Pakistan Defence have caused further outrage by making blasphemy charges against the activists.  Pakistan has an ugly history with draconian blasphemy laws and mob-lynching incidents, and these allegations have therefore been met with immense outrage by human rights organisations and activists. The post was deleted by the page following backlash. Human rights activist Jibran Nasir has asked for the arrests of admins of the page Pakistan Defence for inciting violence against the missing activists without any due proof of blasphemy against them. 

The irony of Salman Haider’s poems and the injustice of missing persons is not lost, and his poetry is doing rounds on the social media once again.  The incident has, however, instilled fear of safety in the liberal, leftist and human rights activism communities. In times when we are already campaigning for free and safe digital spaces for everyone, this fear for safety online will turn into self-censorship and cause a decline in the already demure critical voices we have over the internet. Digital spaces, like social media, provide a means for dissemination of information, protests and awareness campaigns over the internet.  We have gradually moved from sole sit-ins to social media movements for human rights causes. 

However, this change has negative implications as well, since censorship has progressed from the relatively innocent Yahan syaasi guftogu mana hai (Political discourse is forbidden here) signs in public spaces, to actual draconian surveillance and policing of our digital spaces. Airing a view online can have as serious consequences as shouting them out in a public square. Despite efforts to protect digital spaces and keep them safe, we are seeing newer, more disturbing ways of censorship and ‘quietening’ people, since it combines digital discourse with old age methods of simply, and unconstitutionally, wiping people from the map without explanation or trial. In the presence of digital laws in Pakistan and the newfound PECA, we can only hope fair trials are provided to alleged miscreants to prove their crimes. This will not only help maintain digital spaces as safe, secure places for all kinds of debate and discussion, it will also raise public morale and provide them with an illusion of protection.