Since the Supreme Court ruling of April 7, which declared Imran Khan’s dissolution of the national assembly unconstitutional, the subsequent delay on the vote of no-confidence by the PTI’s leaders and his eventual ouster in the early hours of April 9, Khan and his colleagues have carried out a disinformation campaign, played the religion card, and continued to play victim in variety of farcical ways.
Basically, in less than a month, the PTI and its supporters have disrespected the sanctity of one of Islam’s holiest sites, continued to hurl gendered abuse at journalists and their leader’s critics, lied about getting censored, put a target on the back of the current finance minister through their abuse of the religion card, made up facts to further their agenda, called for executions of the incumbent government while labelling them as traitors, and are smearing the COAS on social platforms – all without any consequences. PTI’s propaganda, its attempts at playing victims and use of religion are, however, part of its agenda of disinformation, which it harnesses as a tool to misinform its constituents.
Propaganda and disinformation campaign
PTI’s disinformation campaign has recently reached the United Nations. Dr Shireen Mazari, the former minister of human rights in the Imran Khan administration, has reportedly written to the Special Procedures informing them of political crises at home, their censorship by the press and their persecution in the name of religion.
As audacious as most claims of this letter to the UN are, it is yet another addition in the long list of propaganda tactics which Imran Khan and his party are religiously unrolling through social media and Khan’s frequent media appearances. Maybe for Dr Mazari & Co, not having the media all to themselves through a clampdown on free press and muzzled online spaces, is equivalent to censorship?
Contrary to the PTI’s fabrications, there is literally no censorship of their narrative on the mainstream or independent digital media. Imran Khan’s addresses are broadcasted, his podcast and spaces getting widely reported on. PTI’s claims are also the polar opposite of what the party and the hybrid regime of 2018-2022 did to the opposition, political dissidents, critics of the government and military establishment, civil society and human rights defenders of any ilk. Khan was declared a press predator by the Reporters Sans Frontières in 2021, and entered the fine company of Egypt’s Abdel Fatteh Al-Sissi, India’s Narendra Modi, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, KSA’s Mohammad Bin Salman and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Censorship and clampdown on dissent by Khan’s administration and the hybrid regime version he was part of is extensively documented by the international rights monitors, raised by the UNSRs and reported in the global press. But due to fear of reprisals, it was reported scarcely in the local English, Urdu and other press in regional languages, as journalists and media professionals were brazenly slapped with false police cases, enforced disappearances, assassination attempts, assaults, arbitrary raids and detentions, threats, coordinated online abuse, and unemployment. But there remained a group of craven partisan journalists assigned to tooting the collective horns of Khan and his deep state handlers. The latter had set the stage for his election “win” and tried their best to sustain his Khan’s rule through clamping down on criticism against him and themselves, of course.
On May 2, to desperately amplify his claim of a foreign conspiracy behind his ouster, Imran Khan, the PTI leadership and the party’s Twitter handle, even went as far as to share commentary by an independent little known talking head on Fox News, the infamous news network widely known across the world as right-wing, regressive and republican. Every other day, fact-checking services and even global media’s fact-checking accounts are proving that images, videos, and specific information being spread through social media accounts of the party and its leadership are incorrect. PTI accounts even created fake identities of journalists and other white folks, and attributed pro-Khan commentary to those accounts. The list is long, those interested can check posts by Factcheck Pakistan, Naya Daur’s fact-checks and AFP’s fact check portals.
Notorious for its digital abuse of women journalists and HRDs, PTI still loves the men and women who are the disseminators of its propaganda and malicious abuse. On April 25, Khan addressed them as “frontline warriors” and “social media warriors”, thanked them and asked them to carry out their “movement for Pak’s sovereignty & democracy”. A rather absurd claim, as he tried his best to derail the country’s fragile democracy by his own unconstitutional tactics earlier in April.
One of the vocal frontline warriors of PTI is also Dr Mazari. April 3 onwards, she lied about the credibility of human rights experts, called Aurat March organisers and other rights defenders “foreign funded” for questioning Khan’s dissolution of the National Assembly, and cast aspersions on critical journalists when they reported on PTI supporters showing up outside residences of TV show hosts Hamid Mir and Asma Shirazi.
Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in as the Prime Minister on April 11. Shafqat Hussain, former minister for education, tweeted on April 12 that a “crackdown on media” had started by the de-facto authorities, and lied about the dismissal of pro PTI news show hosts and arrests of journalists. By then the cabinet had not been decided on let alone sworn in.
On April 28, the alleged decision of PTI’s former interior minister Sheikh Rashid and his nephew to plan an act of hooliganism targeting members of de-facto cabinet during their visit to Masjid-e-Nabwi, and hurling gendered slurs at Information Minister Marrium Aurangzeb, too is part of the disinformation campaign and propaganda. The tradition of insulting women politicians is not restricted to PTI’s followers, Dr Mazari called Minister Aurangzeb, a “handmaiden” to Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and former SAPM Shahbaz Gill tweeted a sexist post about State Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar.
Curiously, while Khan spoke about his own faith and wowed, he would never sanction hooliganism at the holy mosque, but still justified it as a legitimate protest and did not condemn the act of harassment. In fact, during his interview with a brazenly pro Khan journalist, he vouched that the current government will not be able to show their faces in public, and he never addressed the abuse of the Information Minister in Madinah.
Contrary to the PTI’s fabrications, there is literally no censorship of their narrative on the mainstream or independent digital media. Imran Khan’s addresses are broadcasted, his podcast and spaces getting widely reported on. PTI’s claims are also the polar opposite of what the party and the hybrid regime of 2018-2022 did to the opposition, political dissidents, critics of the government and military establishment, civil society and human rights defenders of any ilk
The victim card
On May 4, an outspoken female PTI supporter @MaddyWithKhan, who has loudly contributed to the smear campaign against the incumbent COAS, tweeted photoshopped sexualised images of herself claiming those were spread online by the ISI. She also announced that she would go to the intelligence agency’s office. A condemnable act, if true, and the perpetrators must be held to account. It must be noted that previously, any critics of the military from marginalised ethnic or religious groups affected by decades of their discriminatory policies, were attacked for being traitors, sell-outs and anti-states by Insafian accounts.
However, a series of curious responses followed her post. Insafian members and show runners of their digital wing, who are known to have designed, orchestrated and unleashed extreme abuse against female members of PTI’s opposition parties, women journalists, women human rights defenders, women political dissidents, and even women family members of male HRDs, sympathised with her. The Spokesperson of the PTI’s Punjab Digital Wing Azhar Mashwani said the alleged attack at MaddyWithKhan “reeked misogyny.” Mashwani is known to have dog-whistled attacks on women critics of PTI and was outed by a UK-based previous PTI troll farm member as having been the leader of the pack which hurled coordinated gendered abuse at women journalists, aimed at silencing them.
PTI’s former MNA and spokesperson on legal matters Maleeka Bukhari tweeted:
Her use of the words “now” and “malicious campaign”, Mashwani and others’ commentary, in relation to the alleged photoshopped images of MaddyKhan, show that PTI folks have always been able to articulate the right sentiment and sympathy when one of their own is attacked. Again, while highlighting their own victimhood, the “aggressors” of yesterday appropriated the language which the principled human rights defenders and journalists of Pakistan had taught them.
The online abuse of outspoken female critics of PTI or those who reported facts was the norm. It appeared to be the PTI’s policy. Naya Daur’s Ailia Zahra was one of the biggest targets of abuse by the likes of Mashwani and other sexist PTI trolls. Zahra and Asma Shirazi, were among women journalists whose reporting videos were doctored and tweeted as fake news by PTI’s official social media accounts. Discrediting reporting on the PTI government and military as “fake news”, followed by vile threats and name-calling of journalists has been part of PTI’s long-running disinformation campaign. Women journalists faced the brunt of these silencing disinformation tactics, as they were targeted via malicious gendered pile-ons. In August last year, 165 women journalists including a few collectives signed a joint statement calling out the vile coordinated abuse by PTI supporting accounts, and took their complaint to the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee.
I was piled on and abused for criticizing the former first lady and Khan’s third wife Bushra Maneka for calling her a peerni, a female faith-healer, and to tweet that women who are in close proximity with power, which a first lady of any country is, are not absolved of criticism or public scrutiny. The repression of the Khan administration included a complete bar on questioning anything linked to Maneka. In 2021, journalist Syed Imran Shafqat’s house was arbitrarily raided and he was detained for bringing up Maneka’s linkages to corruption claims. The fact that Maneka’s alleged links to corruption of Farah Gogi, her close aide and friend, is now being reported on prime time TV could never happen till April 7, 2022.
The family of Ahmad Waqas Goraya, one of the four bloggers forcibly disappeared in 2017, faced a nightmare through a coordinated abusive social media campaign, which had severe impacts on their physical and mental wellbeing. His wife, mother and young son were subjected to cross platform gendered harassment through slurs, sexualised photoshopped images and threats from mid-2017 till 2020. Goraya says he traced the attackers and gathered evidence which connected the trail of vile abuse to PTI’s Arsalan Khalid, former Social Media Secretary of Imran Khan. Goraya says Khalid ran the campaign against his female immediate family, and only stopped after he sent evidence of connection of online harassers’ accounts to the PTI and Khalid, to the then DG ISPR, CPEC Authority Chair Asim Saeed Bajwa and his wife Zeba, Arsalan Khalid, and another ISPR brigadier.
During the Khan administration, Sanna Ejaz, a Pashtun women human rights defender, one of the core organizers with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, was also subjected to severe gendered harassment by accounts which supported the PTI, military and ISI.
False sex-based narratives, gendered abuse, malicious pile-ons, set in motion with intention of muzzling and censoring women who criticize state policies, pre-date the Imran Khan administration. However, it was harnessed to further a disinformation and censorship campaign effectively between 2018 and April 2022.
Notorious for its digital abuse of women journalists and HRDs, PTI still loves the men and women who are the disseminators of its propaganda and malicious abuse. On April 25, Khan addressed them as “frontline warriors” and “social media warriors”
The religion card
One of the PTI leadership’s glaring and dangerous hypocrisies is their use of religion in politics, while recently playing the victim of that very card.
The blasphemy law and even a hint of blasphemy allegations destroy lives. This is a fact. I cannot recall the number of times I have written sentences like this, said it out loud, used evidence to prove it or alluded to this very fact on social platforms. Anyone who has worked in shedding light on or documenting human rights violations would agree. And yet, unfortunately its relevance would not be reduced in Pakistan or its political climate. Those in power, be it the widely known and yet mysterious military establishment, the leaders of Islamist and mainstream political parties or the professional members of the clergy, have long used allegations of blasphemy and Islam to advance their ulterior agendas.
Dr Shireen Mazari came under criticism, and rightly so, for using this card against political opponents, rather callously on Twitter. On April 14, while responding to a tweet by the notorious Dutch alt-right politician Geert Wilders, she said that “blasphemers” are celebrating Imran Khan’s ouster. Wilders, due to his anti-migrant and racists politics, has incited hatred against Muslims and Islam, for years, even before the term Islamophobia was conceptualised. On April 23, her target was the finance minister Miftah Ismail. Ismail had criticised PTI’s use of the Islamic theological concept of “vice & virtue” to justify their rule. Fun fact: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s government is using their ministry for promotion vice of virtue to restrict women’s freedoms. Dr Mazari deliberately misconstrued Ismail’s comments and called it criticism of the holy texts, thus creating a false equivalence between PTI’s narrative and Islamic concepts, and putting a target on the minister’s back.
The tradition of using Islam for political gain, and to come across as holier than anyone else in the country’s political process, is part of Imran Khan’s MO. In 2017, when the disinformation campaign over amendment in Khatam-e-Nabuwwat clause in the election laws, was initiated by the military establishment to topple the then government of PMLN, Khan contributed to the lies. He spoke at Khatm-e-Nabuwwat conferences in January and February 2018, falsely alleging that the PMLN were trying to amend the second amendment. This was a dangerous move, aimed at discrediting his opponents, but it solidified the sectarian narrative which is key to sustaining the persecution of and violence against the battered Ahmadiyya community of the country. In July 2018, merely weeks before the general election, Khan spoke to yet another conference of right-wing clergy and vowed to defend the 295-C, the section of blasphemy law which carries the death penalty and has been the root of heinous religion based violence in the country, including lynchings and target killings.
Since coming to power, Khan repeatedly invoked Islam and was the poster boy of Sunni Islam’s supremacy in the country. He was, of course, always very worried about anti Muslim violence in the “West”, and Hindutva ideology at the root of violence against Muslims and other minorities in India. But he never turned his laser-sharp focus on religiously motivated attacks, on targeting Pakistan’s Christians, Ahmadis, Shia, Hindus, or vandalism of their worship places, graveyards and properties. One is cynical enough to believe that the PTI government’s notice of brutal lynching of Sri Lankan Priyantha Kumara, a Sialkot factory manager, was due to his status as a foreign national. Otherwise, if Khan truly cared about victims of massacre of minorities, he wouldn’t have stated that relatives of dead Shia Hazara miners, were blackmailing him for demanding that he show up to their protest in Quetta.