In the space of a few days last month five Pakistani bloggers — all known as left-leaning social-media activists — were abducted and vanished into unknown hands. After a domestic and international outcry, the missing men suddenly reappeared this month — safe and unharmed, but just as mysteriously.
None have spoken about their capture or treatment, widely alleged to be the work of Pakistani security agents; one of them, now in the Netherlands, said last week that he had been “afraid I would never come back” but did not identify his abductors.
None appear to have posted anything online, and one website linked to them has been reactivated with serene music and a voice that accuses “secular liberals” of using the internet to harm Islam and “ridicule the Quran.”
Rights groups say a total of 11 bloggers have gone missing in recent weeks, but only five cases have been reported.
Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have long been accused of using “enforced disappearances” as a tool for warning or punishing dissidents.
Since 2011 alone, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports, more than 3,500 such disappearances have occurred.
As the agencies confront the new challenge of electronic opposition, critics allege, they are combining sophisticated detection tools with more familiar, cruder methods of retaliation. “The kidnappings were designed to eliminate the tiny sliver of cyberspace that activists currently have,” Pervez Hoodbhoy, an outspoken Pakistani physicist and dissident, wrote in a recent essay.
He said the complex process of tracing the blogs and their authors “suggested the involvement of some secret state agency,” and that “only the authorities” possessed the “specialised cyber tools” to identify anonymous internet posters.
The abductions have also spurred a national debate about where and how to draw the line between free speech and hate speech in a society that is deeply divided by ideology and religion, and where extremists on both sides can utilise the protective cloaking of internet sites as well as the public free-for-all of cable TV to spew inflammatory accusations.
“We are seeing the most vicious and provocative hate speech on some television talk shows,” Imtiaz Alam, a veteran journalist and a recent target of such attacks, wrote in a newspaper column.
“Allegations of blasphemy, immorality and un-patriotism are being levelled to incite violence and endanger the lives of many media persons.”
While many Pakistanis would regard such comments as offensive, there was immediate and widespread public outrage over the abductions and concern that the bloggers would meet the same fate as many Pakistanis subjected to “enforced disappearances” in past years, who have never been seen again.
Civic rights groups protested across the country, and the US and British governments expressed concern.
“To the casual eye, our press would seem to be very free,” said Farhatullah Babar, a senator in his 70s who has long pressed for laws to bring security agencies under public legal purview.
“There are voices of sanity being raised, but there is also fear and self-censorship. When it comes to what the state sees as going against national security or religion, there is no freedom of expression.”
Pakistani officials denied having any knowledge of the kidnappings. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, assured parliament last month that it was “not the policy of this government” to take such actions.
Several days later, the chief military spokesman told a news conference that “the army has nothing to do with the disappearance of the bloggers.” Meanwhile, a media campaign was launched to discredit the missing men, mostly by conservative clerics and TV hosts.