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.”


Pakistan’s top court orders re-election for Punjab chief minister’s post on July 22

Updated 01 July 2022

Pakistan’s top court orders re-election for Punjab chief minister’s post on July 22

  • All parties agree Hamza Shehbaz will stay as Punjab CM till July 17
  • CM Shehbaz says he has 'nothing to hide,' accepts the court verdict

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s top court on Friday directed authorities to hold a re-election for the post of Punjab chief minister on July 22, local media reported, a day after a high court ordered a recount of votes for the election held in April.   

The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Thursday ordered a recount of votes for the April 16 election which was won by Hamza Shehbaz, ruling the votes of 25 dissident lawmakers of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party who voted for Shehbaz would not be counted. 

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) de-seated these 25 lawmakers in May for deviating from the party’s policy and voting for Shehbaz in the election for CM's slot.   

The PTI challenged the high court’s verdict in the Supreme Court on Friday and after much back-and-forth, all parties to the case — the PTI, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and Shehbaz —agreed to the chief minister’s election on July 22 and that Shehbaz would stay as the CM till July 17.  

"The apex court issued the verbal order as a three-member bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial and comprising Justice Ijazul Ahsan and Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail, took up the petition filed earlier today," Dawn news website reported. 

Shehbaz told reporters outside the court that the CM's election would be held five days after the July 17 by-polls for the Punjab Assembly seats that fell vacant after the ECP de-seated 25 PTI members.   

“I told them [Supreme Court judges] that this is acceptable to me,” CM Shehbaz said. “I have nothing to hide.”  

Shehbaz, a member of the now ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, got 197 votes in the chief minister's election but was left with the support of 172 members in the house after the disqualification of the 25 MPs. 

The high court’s verdict had said if the required majority for Shehbaz, which is 186 votes in the 371-member house, was not secured, the election would be held again under Article 130(4), unless another candidate secured majority votes.  

Article 130(4) says in the second round of voting, a member would not require 186 votes but simply needed a majority of those “present and voting” to be elected the chief minister.  

The top post in Punjab had fallen vacant after the resignation of former Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar, a close aide of PTI leader Imran Khan, in early April. 

Much of political drama has since surrounded the coveted post in the country's most populous and resourceful province. 


Congo virus threat looms in southwest Pakistan ahead of Eid Al-Adha

Updated 01 July 2022

Congo virus threat looms in southwest Pakistan ahead of Eid Al-Adha

  • Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province reported four cases of Congo virus in the month of June
  • Cattle markets being fumigated to curb virus spread, animals vaccinated against lumpy skin disease

QUETTA: The number of Congo virus cases could rise in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan ahead of Eid Al-Adha, a top health official said on Friday, weeks after the province reported four cases of the virus. 

Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, or Congo virus, is an infectious disease transmitted by ticks to humans and animals. These ticks can be found on the skin of goats, sheep, cows, buffalos and camels that are sacrificed by Muslims during the Islamic festival of Eid Al-Adha. 

The disease, which is still endemic in Africa and parts of Asia, has a high fatality rate of 10-40 percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

This undated file photo shows the premises of the Fatima Jinnah Chest Hospital in Quetta, in Pakistan's Balochistan province. (Photo courtesy: social media)

Balochistan last month reported at least 16 suspected cases of the virus, of which four people tested positive who were treated at the Fatima Jinnah Chest Hospital in the provincial capital of Quetta.  

"Sixteen suspicious Congo cases were brought to the Fatima Jinnah Hospital. Two of them were in critical condition who were discharged in the last week of June," Dr Saqiq Baloch, the hospital's medical superintendent, told Arab News. 

"Following the imminent threat of Congo, we are prepared to handle any emergency-like situation and have urged livestock officials to fumigate cattle markets with anti-Congo spray." 

Just like elsewhere in the Muslim world, people have been preparing for Eid Al-Adha, one of the two biggest religious festivals in the Islamic calendar, and buying animals to offer as sacrifice. 

With the influx of livestock traders from Sindh and Punjab provinces, the threat of a spread of Congo virus and other diseases has also increased in Balochistan. 

The Balochistan Livestock Department has intensified fumigation across the province against the Congo virus and deputed teams at entrances to the province to check and administer lumpy skin disease (LSD) vaccines to animals. 

“A total of 8,150 cases of LSD have been reported in many districts of the province, particularly those bordering Sindh and Punjab, since the outbreak was first reported in Pakistan,” said Dr Jumma Babar, director of the Balochistan Animal Health Department. 

"The Animal Health Department has started a mass vaccination campaign in Lasbela, Uthal and Jaffarabad districts that has been effective in controlling the spread of the disease." 

Prevalent in Africa since 1929, LSD is transmitted by bloodsucking insects like ticks and mosquitoes. It does not affect people and is rarely fatal. In Pakistan, LSD was first reported in animals in the Punjab province in October 2021. 

Khuda Buksh, 40, who came to main cattle market in Quetta to buy animals, said previously they only heard of the Congo virus, but this Eid season they have been hearing about LSD too, which is why a majority people are buying small animals. 

“We have seen people splashing spray on animals in the market and hope this would be helpful in eradicating the disease among sacrificial animals,” Buksh told Arab News. 

Muhammad Yousuf, a 38-year-old trader who brought with him 35 cattle from Sindh's Jacobabad district, said they await customers throughout the day, but a majority of people is interested in buying goats and sheep instead of cows and buffaloes. 

“We haven’t heard about this animal pox disease before, but many customers here keenly observe the cattle skin. This would impact our business this Eid season,” Yousuf said. 


Indian court orders BJP spokeswoman to 'apologise to whole nation' over anti-Islam remarks

Updated 01 July 2022

Indian court orders BJP spokeswoman to 'apologise to whole nation' over anti-Islam remarks

  • Anger engulfed Islamic world last month after Nupur Sharma's incendiary comments during a TV debate
  • Nearly 20 countries called in their Indian ambassadors for explanation, rallies erupted around South Asia

NEW DELHI: A ruling party spokeswoman whose remarks on Islam embroiled India in a diplomatic row and sparked huge protests should apologize for having “set the country on fire,” New Delhi’s top court said Friday. 

Anger engulfed the Islamic world last month after Nupur Sharma’s incendiary comments during a TV debate on the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and his youngest wife, with nearly 20 countries calling in their Indian ambassadors for an explanation. 

Rallies also erupted around South Asia, with police killing two demonstrators in India, while this week two Muslim men were accused of the grisly murder of a Hindu tailor who had posted in support of Sharma on Facebook. 

“She and her loose tongue have set the country on fire,” India’s Supreme Court said during a procedural hearing on several criminal complaints filed against Sharma. 

“This lady is single-handedly responsible for what is happening in the country,” it added. “She should apologize to the whole nation.” 

Since her comments, Sharma has been subjected to multiple police complaints filed against her across India by members of the public. 

While the 37-year-old’s whereabouts are unknown, her lawyer was in court asking that the cases be consolidated in New Delhi, a request denied Friday. 

Sharma was at one time seen as a rising star in the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but her remarks forced it into damage control. 

The party soon suspended the spokeswoman from her post and issued a statement insisting it respected all religions. 

Since coming to power nationally in 2014, the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of championing discriminatory policies toward followers of the Islamic faith. 

Critics also say the government has presided over a crackdown on free speech and rights activists. 

This week police arrested the Muslim journalist Mohammed Zubair, a vocal critic of the government who had helped draw attention to Sharma’s remarks. 

He was arrested on Monday and remains in custody over a four-year-old tweet about a Hindu god that police said had been the subject of complaints by Hindu groups.


Pakistan urges caution over Eid holidays as coronavirus cases rise

Updated 01 July 2022

Pakistan urges caution over Eid holidays as coronavirus cases rise

  • Pakistan has had few COVID-19 cases in recent months and had done away with almost all precautions
  • 694 positive cases reported in last 24 hours, nearly double the number at the start of the week on Monday

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Health Minister Abdul Qadir Patel on Friday called on the public to take precautionary measures as coronavirus cases once again rise in the country, calling masks “essential” during the upcoming Eid Al-Adha holiday and urging people not to shake hands and hug.

Pakistan has had very few COVID-19 cases over recent months and had done away with almost all precautions.

But over the past 24 hours, the national COVID positivity ratio had risen to 3.93 percent with 694 positive cases, nearly double the number at the start of the week on Monday, according to data released on Friday by the National Institute of Health, Islamabad (NIH).

“We must take precautionary measures against coronavirus and ensure social distancing,” Patel said in a statement. “Mask wearing is essential during the time of Eid-ul-Adha and avoid going to crowded places.”

The minister appealed to religious scholars to ensure social distancing at mosques and urged the public to avoid hugging and shaking hands during the Eid holidays. 

On Thursday, Pakistan issued fresh standard operating procedures (SOPs) for government office.

The NIH in a notification urged government staffers to avoid shaking hands and mandated wearing face masks and incorporating social distancing in seating plans and during prayers.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired a meeting to take stock of the coronavirus situation urging masses to take precautions against the infection.

Pakistan disbanded the National Command and Operations Center, its main pandemic response body, on March 31 as infections fell to the lowest since the outbreak began in 2020.

However, the South Asian country on May 23 reconstituted the NCOC at the NIH after health officials detected a new omicron sub-variant in a passenger arriving from Qatar. The new sub-variant of omicron is said to be highly infectious, though not as deadly as previous coronavirus strains.

Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) last week once again made it mandatory for all passengers on domestic flights to wear masks. Authorities are also urging eligible individuals to get booster vaccine shots.

There have been 1,536,479 infections and 30,395 coronavirus-related deaths reported in Pakistan since the pandemic began.


Pakistan inflation rose 21.3% in June 2021, highest rate in 13 years

Updated 01 July 2022

Pakistan inflation rose 21.3% in June 2021, highest rate in 13 years

  • In May, consumer price index was recorded at 13.8 percent, year-on-year
  • Fuel prices have been raised by about 90 percent since end of May

KARACHI: Pakistan’s consumer price index (CPI) rose 21.3% in June from a year earlier, the statistics bureau said on Friday, for the South Asian nation's highest inflation in 13 years.

In May, the CPI was up 13.8% on the year. The month on month rise in June was 6.3%.

The spike comes as fuel prices have risen about 90% since end May after the government scrapped costly fuel subsidies in a bid to cut its surging fiscal deficit and secure resumption of an IMF bailout programme.

Transport saw the biggest rise, with its index rising 62.2% in June on the year.

The price index for food items, which make up about a third of the CPI basket, rose 25.9%.

Pakistan has been struggling with high inflation for the last few months.

Despite rising global oil prices, subsidies for fuel and power were adopted in March 2022 by the government of previous prime minister Imran Khan, as he faced mounting discontent over his handling of the economy and rising inflation.

He was ousted in April, and the new government began reversing the costly subsidy, which it brought on par with international prices late last month.

Prices of fuel were hiked further on Thursday, with the cash-strapped government imposing a petroleum levy in its battle to reduce the fiscal deficit.

The levy, which officials expect to rise even further, was part of fiscal consolidation measures agreed with the IMF to resume the bailout programme.