It’s out in the open now. In Pakistan, Facebook reported that it removed at least 40 accounts, 28 Instagram accounts and groups, all involved in manipulating domestic public opinion in favour of the Pakistan military and its policies, including on topic such as India and Kashmir.
This was no half penny operation. It was big, well-funded, and occurs at a time when Pakistan’s media is being systematically targeted. It gets worse. Pakistan’s judiciary is also being hammered into shape, as a senior judge battles it out in court, against his dismissal by the powers that be. This is a fight for absolute control over the Pakistanis themselves.
The Facebook ‘Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour Report’ identified fake and manipulation accounts back to Alpha Pro, a Pakistani public relations firm, which listed the DG ISPR (Director General Inter-Services Public Relations) as one of its clients. The accounts shut down were certainly popular with some 800,000 followers of ‘one or more’ Facebook account, and 2,400 followers in one Instagram account.
It closed down more than 100 pages linked specifically to employees of the DG (ISPR) at the same time. It used a private entity Alpha Pro, who could not easily be traced back to the Pakistan army In fact, it probably wouldn’t have, except that a Pakistan media source pulled Alpha Pro’s ‘clients’ page from the Internet, which clearly showed the Pakistan army as one.
The company itself was quoted as saying that all they did was to produce a documentary called ‘Invincible Resolve’ for the Pakistan army, glorifying its counter strike against India after the 2019 Balakot airstrikes by the Indian Air Force. In that case it also needs to answer why it helped create strongly anti-India content in Arabic, Pashto, Urdu and English. This goes to show that without doubt it was an influence operation.
Threatening The Media
The frightening aspect is how far-reaching these influence operations are. Media houses such as the Dawn Group and the Jang Group have faced sustained and direct harassment. In January, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rashid Ahmed vowed that action would be taken within 72 hours against anyone for speaking against the army or ‘state institutions’. He seems to have kept his promise.
In April, a senior journalist and former chairman of the Pakistan’s media regulatory body was shot at in Islamabad. In May, outspoken journalist Asad Ali Toor was beaten up inside his house. Then came the removal of veteran journalist Hamid Mir from a popular television show, following his speech at the National Press Club, threatening revelations against the army, including a general who had been shot at by his wife for philandering. Mir has since apologised to the army.
There was no doubt who won the day. There is now a draft law in Pakistan’s Parliament which effectively criminalises criticism of the military with a two year prison sentence and heavy fines.
Less discussed are the pressure tactics on the Pakistan’s judiciary. One such is a tussle with Justice Qasi Faez Isa, accused of not disclosing property in London. The judge has fought back, citing ‘fifth generation warfare’ against him and his family, due to his going against the intelligence agencies in the Faizabad protests by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik. Then there is the case of Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High court, who revealed that the ISI was manipulating judicial proceedings to ensure favourable decisions. The accused included, among others, then Major General Faiz Hameed — now the DG ISI.
All of this indicates that the army’s rule in Pakistan is real and is operating on the ground. It also indicates that Pakistan’s Prime Minister is a mere figure head, allowed to make his speeches, and little else.
More worrying for New Delhi is the ISI’s continuing manipulation of Pakistan’s media against India. This indicates that Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s words of India and Pakistan “burying the past” during the Islamabad Security Dialogue on March 18 were probably hollow. Another explanation could be that Bajwa’s army is not listening to him, which is not as unlikely as it sounds. The whole anti-India project is worth a lot in hard cash and status.
Repeated and public allegations against the DG ISI means someone doesn’t like him either, probably ending his chances of becoming the next chief. The Pakistan army needs to learn that acquiring a tight grip on that country is one thing — it is quite another to prevent multiple hands from operating the levers.