With big red stamp, Pakistan government portal singles out journalists and ‘fake news’

A combination picture shows screengrabs of tweets by the Pakistan government's @FakeNews_Buster Twitter handle, run by the ministry of information (AN photo)
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Updated 30 September 2020

With big red stamp, Pakistan government portal singles out journalists and ‘fake news’

  • Official at information ministry who runs @FakeNews_Buster Twitter account says the page “simply tells people the government’s viewpoint”
  • Rights activists say government has picked up the term ‘fake news’ from Trump who routinely uses it to discredit journalists and play down stories against him 

ISLAMABAD: Suriya Jamal is the director-general of the cyber-wing of Pakistan’s Ministry of Information. Every day she ensures that Internet and social media monitoring reports are prepared for senior officials, Internet campaigns are designed for national events and her team provides seamless IT and communications services support to the ministry and its attached organs.
Since October 2018, however, Jamal’s job has had a new component: running the ministry of information’s @FakeNews_Buster account on Twitter that is meant to highlight articles the government considers to be ‘fake news’, including one in July by Arab News.
Each post on the @FakeNews_Buster Twitter account carries a big red label reading “FAKE NEWS” in English and a line saying: “Disseminating #FakeNews is not only unethical and illegal but it is also disservice to the nation. It is the responsibility of everyone to reject irresponsible behavior. Reject #FakeNews.”
Digital rights activists and journalists told Arab News the venture, which routinely singles out individual journalists, fits a pattern of creating alternative realities meant to sow confusion and is part of the government’s sweeping efforts to dismiss real news it does not like and intimidate journalists who write or speak critically of its policies.
Since his campaign to run for US president, Donald Trump has popularized the term ‘fake news,’ invoking it to undermine opponents, rally his supporters and discredit journalists who aggressively investigated his campaign and now his presidency.
Emboldened by Trump, many authoritarian and populist leaders around the world have seized on the phrase ‘fake news’ as a tool to attack critics.
Pakistan too has taken a shine to the concept.

In July this year, the government said it was preparing new laws to curb coronavirus-related ‘fake news’ on social media platforms in a move that has stoked fears authorities might use the additional powers to choke freedom of speech and chill dissent.
It was not immediately clear what criteria the Pakistani ministry of information applies in its effort to identify what it considers to be ‘fake news,’ and Jamal declined to answer questions beyond that the @FakeNews_Buster account labeled stories as ‘fake’ after seeking information and ‘clarifications’ from relevant government departments and officials.
“We simply tell people about the government’s viewpoint,” she said. “How is this harassment?”
In a joint statement last month, a group of Pakistani women journalists demanded action by the government against social media attacks, including campaigns to accuse them of peddling ‘fake news’ for covering the government’s policies critically.
“The online attacks are instigated by government officials and then amplified by a large number of Twitter accounts, which declare their affiliation to the ruling party,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a petition last week.
Azhar Mashwani, an adviser on digital media to the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, denied government social media accounts were being used to harass journalists or suppress freedom of the press.
The prime minister, he said, had conveyed “clear instructions” through the ministry of information to all government departments to issue rebuttals against ‘fake news’ and take legal action. “But no department has initiated any action so far,” he told Arab News.
“We bring facts to the people,” he added.
In one of many examples where Mashwani has taken to Twitter to accuse journalists of peddling ‘fake news,’ he accused a reporter at Pakistan’s daily Dawn newspaper last month of “twisting and altering” his remarks in a WhatsApp interview for a story about the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party’s use of social media to project a ‘positive’ image of Pakistan.
The reporter published a complete transcript of the conversation, showing that she had quoted Mashwani verbatim. But he continued to post on Twitter saying what was published was a “total misrepresentation.”

In an article last week, the website for Pakistan’s Geo News channel fact-checked a number of news stories that the @FakeNews_Buster account and government representatives had labeled as ‘fake’ on social media, including an Arab News report published on July 7 about the centuries-old Ram Mandir temple in Islamabad where Hindus are no longer allowed to pray.

In response to the post by @FakeNews_Buster, Arab News sent a letter to information minister Shibli Faraz, urging the ministry to take down the tweet and explaining the multiple rounds of fact-checking and editing that the story had gone through.
The ministry acknowledged receiving the letter, but had not taken action to remove the post, Baker Atyani, Asia bureau chief for Arab News, said.
“The story was thoroughly investigated, checked, and cross-checked by senior editors of Arab News but unfortunately we didn’t hear back from the ministry or the information minister,” he said. “We have asked in our letter that the tweet should be taken down and the ministry should clarify that the Arab News story was accurate.”
Atyani said Arab News had urged the ministry to take up such concerns with the organization directly, rather than targeting its reporters and editors on social media.
“We believe these kinds of unfortunate claims not only undermine our credibility,” he said, “but also could put the lives of our team who worked on the story at risk.”
When Arab News asked Jamal about the @FakeNews_Buster tweet about its story, she declined comment, saying “Let me check.”
“Whenever I rebut a story, I do it with facts, and this is not harassment of journalists,” Dr. Arsalan Khalid, the prime minister’s focal person on digital media, told Arab News when asked about attacks on journalists by government-affiliated social media accounts. “Ideally when you label a news as fake news, you will have to provide the details through documents or videos and nobody should get offended over it. If it is fake news, it is fake news.”
Farieha Azizi, a digital rights activist who heads Bolo Bhi, said the government used accounts like @FakeNews_Buster to beat back media scrutiny and browbeat reporters, and the strategy to attack individuals, rather than organizations, on social media was a deliberate one.
“I’m not saying that you should start targeting the organizations, but the institutions have a mechanism and people to respond,” she said. “But here you’re singling out individuals deliberately, then multiple accounts start targeting them and give threats only because there was a difference of opinion, or an opinion which they [government and its supporters] don’t like.”
“If the government wants to clarify a news item, it should do it from official sources only,” Aziz added, saying the Pakistan government had picked up the term ‘fake news’ from Trump who routinely used it to discredit journalists and play down stories against him.
Shahzada Zulfiqar, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists [PFUJ], said the government was “intentionally” using social media platforms to confuse the public and discredit journalists it did not agree with.
He said government representatives used social media to “incite the public, their [government’s] supporters and followers” to attack and abuse journalists by using ‘fake news’ as a tool.
“This is certainly a condemnable act,” Zulfiqar said, “and the government must ensure freedom of press in the country instead of working against it.”
Imran Ghazali, the head of the newly established Digital Media Wing, said he was working to get all official accounts verified so no one could claim to speak in the government’s name and an ‘authentic and data-driven’ flow of information could be maintained on social media.
“Once it is done,” he said, “many of the issues will stand resolved automatically.”

Third Afghan Taliban commander killed in Peshawar in last four months

Updated 20 April 2021

Third Afghan Taliban commander killed in Peshawar in last four months

  • Mullah Nek Muhammad Rehbar looked after the insurgent group’s military deployments in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province
  • He fought against Daesh militants in Afghanistan who claimed responsibility for the attack

ISLAMABAD: A senior Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Nek Muhammad Rehbar was killed in Peshawar Monday afternoon by two gunmen riding a motorbike, confirmed a police official and two Taliban leaders.
The slain Taliban commander looked after military deployments in Nangarhar, and his killing was also mentioned by the governor of the Afghan province Ziaulhaq Amarkhil in a Twitter post.
Rehbar was scheduled to return to Afghanistan as top Taliban leaders had asked their key commanders to reach their respective areas in the war-battered country.
The attack on Rehbar was claimed by Daesh.
His brother Maulvi Noor Muhammad was also killed in Peshawar in a shooting incident about 15 years ago.
A police official in Peshawar who requested anonymity since he was not authorized to speak to the media said three other people accompanying 35-year-old Rehbar were also injured in the attack.
Rehbar’s body had been shifted to the Lady Reading Hospital and investigations were launched to determine the motive behind the incident, he added.
Afghan analysts say the slain Taliban commander had fought against Daesh militants in Nangarhar which could be the main reason behind his murder in Peshawar.
Zakir Jalali, a security analyst, said Taliban officials were easy to target when they live a normal life as refugees.
Jalali told Arab News Rehbar had resisted Daesh fighters in Khogyani district of Nangarhar and the group decided to kill him since he was a “soft target” inside Pakistan.
The slain commander was the third Taliban leader who was killed in Peshawar during the last four months.
Maulvi Abdul Hadi, the Taliban governor for Laghman, was assassinated in Peshawar in February.
In January, another Taliban leader Abdul Samad Mullah Toor was killed near the city.
Several senior Taliban commanders, including the group’s chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, were also killed in American drone attacks in the past.
Unidentified gunmen shot dead Dr. Nasiruddin Haqqani, the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban deputy chief, near Islamabad in November 2013.
A former senior Taliban figure, Abdullah alias Maulvi Abdul Raqeeb, who was known to be in favor of peace talks with the Hamid Karzai administration, was gunned down in Peshawar in February 2014.
Meanwhile, a former Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmayeen died of COVID-19 in Peshawar in January.
Mutmayeen served as Taliban spokesperson after Mullah Omar launched the movement in Kandahar in 1994.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed Mutmayeen’s death and conveyed the insurgent group’s condolences to his family.

Pakistan parliament to debate French ambassador’s expulsion today 

Updated 40 sec ago

Pakistan parliament to debate French ambassador’s expulsion today 

  • The interior minister says the government has assured the Tehreek-e-Labbaik religious party all cases against its workers will be withdrawn
  • Lahore’s superintendent jail denies rumors of TLP chief Saad Rizvi’s release while talking to Arab News 

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani government said on Tuesday it would present a resolution in the National Assembly later in the day for the expulsion of the French ambassador to meet the demand of a recently banned religious party in the country.
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party held violent nationwide protests to force the government to honor what it said was a commitment made to it last February to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication of blasphemous caricatures in France.
“It is agreed between the government and TLP after negotiations that we will present a resolution in the National Assembly today for the expulsion of the French ambassador,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said in a video statement early Tuesday.
The announcement comes after a government delegation, comprising the interior and religious affairs ministers, met the TLP leaders for negotiations in Lahore. The government representatives held at least three rounds of talks with the protesters to convince them to call off their demonstrations.
The interior minister said the TLP had agreed to end protests and sit-ins across the country.
“The process of negotiations will move forward,” he added.
He said that all cases registered against the TLP workers would also be withdrawn, adding that he would give a detailed briefing on the development in a press conference later today. 
The National Assembly will also meet at 3pm on Tuesday to debate the issue.
There were also rumors that TLP chief Saad Rizvi had been released from prison, though Lahore’s Superintendent Jail Asad Javed Warraich denied any such development while talking to Arab News.
Last night, the government closed all major roads in Islamabad and Rawalpindi with shipping containers, fearing the TLP workers may move toward the twin cities to hold anti-France protests.
The government has apparently shown flexibility in its stance to end TLP protests as Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a televised address to the nation on Monday that breaking diplomatic ties with France would hit Pakistani exports to the European Union and fuel poverty, unemployment and inflation in the country.
“The biggest effect [of breaking ties with France] will be that after great difficulty our economy is rising, the large-scale industry is getting up after a long time, people are getting jobs, wealth is increasing in our country, our exports are rising and after a long time, our rupee is strengthening,” Khan said, adding that breaking ties with France would amount to severing relations with the entire European Union.
“Half of our textile exports go to the EU and that will be stopped, resulting in unemployment, devaluation of the rupee, increase in inflation and poverty,” Khan said. “We will be at loss but this won’t make any difference to France.”
Violent protests by the rightwing group rocked the country since last Monday when TLP chief Saad Rizvi was arrested in Lahore for threatening the government with rallies if it did not expel the French envoy to Islamabad over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) published in France last year.
The protests paralyzed major cities and highways all week, leading to the killing of six policemen, according to the government. Photographs of the police, with their heads, legs and arms heavily bandaged, were posted on social media by their captors through the week.
On Sunday, TLP said three of its members were killed during clashes outside the TLP headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore. The group also took a number of police officers and paramilitary troops hostage, releasing 11 policemen in the early hours of Monday after negotiations with the government.
The riots also prompted the French embassy last week to recommend all its nationals to temporarily leave the country.
Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking police and paramilitary troops and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision was approved by the federal cabinet, thought it needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the official dissolution of the group.
In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan, over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed the blasphemous cartoons to his pupils during a civics lesson. French President Emmanuel Macron defended the caricatures as freedom of expression.

Pakistan says UAE extends $2 billion loan repayment deadline

Updated 55 min 20 sec ago

Pakistan says UAE extends $2 billion loan repayment deadline

  • The decision was conveyed to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi during his visit to the Arab country
  • Pakistan was previously required to pay the ‘aid loan’ from the Abu Dhabi Fund by April 19, 2021

ISLAMABAD: The United Arab Emirates has extended the repayment period of a $2 billion “aid loan” given to Pakistan from the Abu Dhabi Fund, said a statement issued by the foreign office of Pakistan on Tuesday.
The decision was conveyed to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi by his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan during a meeting in Abu Dhabi.
Qureshi thanked his host for the “goodwill gesture” and described it as a sign of growing bilateral relations between the two countries.

Pakistan sought financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after Prime Minister Imran Khan won the 2018 general elections.
The country faced a significant balance of payment crisis when the two Arab states came to its rescue and shored up its foreign currency reserves.
The UAE had earlier set April 19, 2021, as the payment deadline, though it decided to extend it for Pakistan’s further economic convenience.
During a wide-ranging discussion, Qureshi thanked the UAE foreign minister for supporting the Pakistani community and taking special care of its workforce during the coronavirus pandemic. 
He also discussed visas issues with his Emirati counterpart and invited him to pay an early visit to his country. 
This was Qureshi’s second visit to the United Arab Emirates during the last four months, said the foreign office, reflecting “the growing bilateral relations and high-level contacts between the two countries.”

Pakistan urges Taliban to stay engaged in Afghan peace process

Updated 19 April 2021

Pakistan urges Taliban to stay engaged in Afghan peace process

  • FM Qureshi says Taliban will take their own decisions but Pakistan will convince them engagement in their national interest
  • Says troop withdrawal delays were always a possibility due to logistics but Taliban should show flexibility towards new Sept. 11 deadline

ABU DHABI: Pakistan on Monday urged the Taliban to remain engaged in the Afghan peace process after the armed group said it would now shun summits about Afghanistan until all foreign forces leave.

The decision was taken after the United States said last week it would withdraw all troops by Sept. 11 this year, later than a May 1 deadline set out by the previous administration.

"They take their own decisions but we will do whatever we can to convince them that it is in their national interest to remain engaged," Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said of the Taliban in an interview with Reuters in Abu Dhabi.

The refusal has thrown the peace process into disarray with Turkey scheduled for Saturday to host a summit that diplomats had hoped could create new momentum towards a political settlement between the Taliban and Afghan government.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when they were ousted by U.S.-led forces, but they still control wide areas.

Qureshi said withdrawal delays were always a possibility due to logistics but that the Taliban had largely succeeded in their objective for foreign troops to withdraw and so should show flexibility towards the new Sept. 11 deadline.

"The troops will be out and a date has been given and the process starts on the 1st of May and goes on until the 11th of September so there is a definite time frame," Qureshi said.

Sources have told Reuters Pakistan was putting pressure on the militants to come back to the table.

Qureshi said he believed the Taliban would benefit from staying involved but said he had no contact with the group.

Pakistan, which helped facilitate U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha that resulted in the initial May 1 withdrawal deal, wields considerable influence with the Taliban.

The insurgents have sanctuaries in Pakistan, whose main military-run intelligence service gives them support, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. Pakistan denies the allegation.

Qureshi said he feared violence could escalate if the peace process remains deadlocked, plunging Afghanistan into civil war and leading to an exodus of Afghans.

Pakistan, which hosts close to 3 million Afghan refugees and economic migrants, has built 90% of a fence along its disputed 2,500 km (1,500 mile) border with Afghanistan and would hopefully be completed by September, he said.

He also said Pakistan was ready to engage in direct dialogue with arch-rival India once Jammu and Kashmir statehood was restored, which New Delhi in 2019 split into territories.

"We are two atomic powers that cannot, should not go into a direct conflict. It would be suicidal," Qureshi said.

But he said he had no plans to meet with his Indian counterpart who is also in the United Arab Emirates this week.

Top intelligence officers from India and Pakistan held secret talks in Dubai in January in a new effort to calm military tension over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, sources have told Reuters

Pakistani PM to visit Saudi Arabia by end of Ramadan — aide

Updated 20 April 2021

Pakistani PM to visit Saudi Arabia by end of Ramadan — aide

  • Khan spoke on the telephone with Saudi crown prince last month and accepted an invitation to visit the kingdom
  • Visit will involve discussions on economy, trade, religious affairs, tourism and climate change

ISLAMABAD: On the invitation of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Prime Minister Imran Khan will visit Saudi Arabia by the end of Ramadan, Khan’s special adviser on religious harmony and the Middle East said on Monday.

Last month Khan spoke with the crown prince in a wide-ranging phone call and accepted an invitation to visit the kingdom “in the near future.”

“Prime Minister Imran Khan, on the invitation of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, will visit Saudi Arabia by the end of Ramadan,” Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi told Arab News. “All issues of bilateral relations will come under discussion during the visit, including cooperation in economy, trade, religious affairs, tourism and especially the green revolution. Prime minister will also perform Umrah during the visit.”

Ashrafi said a special focus of the visit would be to increasing Pakistani cooperation in the recently launched Saudi Green revolution project.

The crown prince last month called the leaders of Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, and Sudan to discuss a massive regional tree-planting project. The Saudi Green Initiative is part of the prince’s Vision 2030 plan to reduce its reliance on oil revenues and improve quality of life. The crown prince unveiled the ambitious campaign at the end of March that will see Saudi Arabia planting 10 billion trees in the coming decades and working with other Arab states to plant another 40 billion trees, reduce carbon emissions and combat pollution and land degradation.

“It is expected that big progress will be announced on the green revolution,” Ashrafi added. 

“Am delighted to learn of ‘Green Saudi Arabia’ & ‘Green Middle East’ initiatives by my brother, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman!” Khan had written on Twitter last month. “Have offered our support on these as there are many complementarities with our ‘Clean & Green Pakistan’ & ‘10 Billion-Tree Tsunami’.”