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Shrinking space for women offline and online as cybercrimes grow

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“I was harassed online by a Facebook friend. He asked me favors which I always ignored. That night he threatened me: he will do worse I will have to repent. I still ignored with a belief he can do nothing.”

The next morning a friend texted her about why she had created a new Facebook account. She didn’t know what the friend was talking about and ignored it. A couple of minutes later another one enquired. She still did not pay attention.

Then she got a call from her colleague about something suspicious on her account. She rushed to log in and saw a new account with revealing photo shopped pictures. Her stalker had added and abusive language, calling her abusive names. It wasn’t just Facebook. There were fake Twitter and LinkedIn accounts in her name as well. She remembered her annoyance of the previous night and his words: “You will repent.”

It’s not easy to seek help from state authorities. The procedures are lengthy and complicated. You are just exposing yourself,” says Zunaira. Zunaira is an educated female who works in a private firm in the suburbs of capital of Pakistan and related this story. The online friendship with this guy was more than a year old. 15 months passed when he started harassing her.

Social media has opened up new avenues for people, not only in terms of getting social but also for advancements to career, business and other opportunities. And it is often followed by stalking and harassment, too. In Pakistan the majority of women that are harassed online on social media cannot do much about it except to hide their profiles, limit the friends and apply security settings. Some just leave the platform.

BOOM BOOM Internet

Internet users are growing every day across the world and in Pakistan as well, opening up a chance to join a global online community to share experiences, exchange ideas and explore opportunities.

During last 15 years, the number of internet users in Pakistan have increased from below a million to 3.4 million. Pakistan hosts one-fifth of the world's population with more and more people going online each day. Still as a developed country, technology access is limited and so is the internet. The internet users are only 01 out a 100 when compared to global internet usage. However Internet users in this region are growing fast at a tremendous rate of more than 200% every year. Data also indicates a proportional increase in social media use, especially Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.

But for Pakistani women, transitioning from a fairly small, sheltered community defined by geography and family to a limitless virtual community can expose them to unexpected risks, including hacking, money theft, harassment, bullying, blasphemy and more.

Pakistan and cybercrimes over the years

Despite Pakistan’s global perception of insecurity driven by the high profile war on terror, Pakistan is a fairly safe country.                              

Pakistan is a stable country with a low crime rate. It does not fall anywhere in the top 80 most dangerous countries while India holds 76th position with every 1 in 50th person convicted a crime. Neither does Pakistan rank in top 100 countries for hosting cybercriminals, according to stats released by International security agency.

Visualization: Top ten countries with most cyber crimes across the world

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NRC3 the savior: FIA misses the chance to tackle the cases

‘People in my social circle advised me to approach FIA. I had no idea of how and where to report. I was afraid of the consequences. I feel scared. I will have to visit police station. They will come my home. My family will kill me for that’.

The government of Pakistan took a step in 2007 to protect people from online harassment with the launch of a special department ‘National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes’ (NR3C). It works under Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) and is dedicated especially to fight cybercrimes. Its services include but are not limited to crimes over internet such as money theft, hacking, stalking, harassment, frauds, credit card skimming, fake shopping sites, blackmailing and illegal data transmission. People and organizations can report and register their cases online and in person.

‘Everyone tells me it’s very easy to report harassment. Just go to FIA website and fill in the form with details or email them what happened, and they help. I did so but they never respond.’

Every passing day was a nightmare of what will happen next. After 3 weeks I started getting dump calls at my office, I told the receptionist not to forward any such call or to commit that I work here.  Another week passed and somehow he got my mobile number as well. I was afraid and stressed. My mobile rang every time and I made it on silent for 24hrs. It was annoying and so I started deleting my pictures and info and changed my cell number. Seven months passed and I got a call from a police inspector saying ‘Bibi come to our police station tomorrow with evidence and to record your statement on this case.’

Zunaira felt more stressed after this call. She discussed this with a close friend and finally took her fiancé in confidence who advised not to proceed with the case.

‘Stay online but do not share your pictures or other information ever again’ said her fiancé Kaleem

Cases pile up uninvestigated

A lot of cases are reported daily over phone, website and email however many of them are awaiting to be dealt further. Out of ten victims interviewed for this story, nine received no response from their e-mail complaint to the agency.

We have competent and trained professionals at NR3C to tackle the crimes over internet. Progress of FIA is a landmark to motivate people to approach Law Enforcement agencies for getting rid of online harassment. People should and they do report a lot, we investigate as well. But it takes time, we are short of staff and resources,” said FIA Inspector Naveed.

FIA receives hundreds of enquiries and complaints on cybercrimes every year and the trend is going up. According to a recent report released by FIA, 1500 complaints were lodged in 2015 that has almost tripled in 2016. Among registered complaints, more than half were of Punjab region, followed by Sindh, ICT, KP and Baluchistan with almost equal numbers.           

Critics claim these aren’t all; Reported cases comprise only 10 percent of the cybercrimes in Pakistan, other 90 remain unreported.

Visualization: Corruption Score 2016, Pakistan stands at 116 in global list of countries

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Data shows that three out of five complaints stay pending with FIA. Whereas one is closed and only one converted to cases. Officials believe these cases are piling up and still pending for many reasons.  The factors include incomplete information from the complainant, people unaware of how to generate evidence, deletion of accounts in question, fake profiles, no information except IP addresses to catch cyer-criminals, most internet connections are shared and each user is on same IP address, and mobile numbers are registered on fake NICs.

And it’s not only these cases. 80% of all court cases in Pakistani courts whether it be local court, high court or Supreme Court are pending for years without justice.

Visualization: Cases pile up as cybercrime complaints rise

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The un-trustworthy police and justice system

According to Global Corruption Barometer report 2016, published by Transparency International, Pakistan stands at 116th out of 196 on corruption and it’s getting worse each year. Although the Pakistani government openly claims improvement in its corruption index, the facts suggest otherwise. Pakistan’s ranking in global index dropped to 116 from 117 this year proving the corruption is rising. Not only this, the corruption score has continuous increased for the last five years.

People in Thailand and Pakistan were particularly likely to think that the police were highly corrupt, with over three quarters saying most or all police officers in their country were corrupt.

Regarding the law and order institutions in Pakistan – around seven in 10 people who came into contact with either the police or the courts had to pay a bribe.

Not only are the people reluctant to contact the police about cyber-crime, they would rather not visit a police station or courts ever in their lives. FIA/ NR3C are considered just another corrupt police agency.           

‘Our females are respected, none of them has ever provided a chance in bringing insolence to our family. Rumors about your relations will ruin us. We cannot stay cut off just because of your mistake’ said Kaleem. Kaleem is not the only educated male character in Pakistani society who prioritizes family values over everything.

Another reason, like the one used by Zunaira’s fiancé to urge her not to pursue the case,  is the fear of disrespect ('Badnami') and hatred among family, relatives and society that serves as basic reason from not seeking help from law enforcement agencies.

The cybercrime bill: pull and push of law makers and the public

As the crimes over internet increased, the government realized the need to formulate some law that will help restrict illegal usage by the citizens in addition to the agency set up to investigate complaints.

 

Greater access to internet for citizens brought in the need for increased surveillance, control and censorship of web by state authorities. The Electronic Crime Bill 2015 was regarded as an important step. It was presented in Assembly in early 2015. It went through a series of objections and modifications and was finally approved in July 2016.

The State Minister for Information Technology Anusha Rehman claims, “The implementation of the cybercrime bill is the sole responsibility of the Interior Ministry. The law includes a total of 21 punishments that can be imposed from activity on the Internet, with up to seven years of imprisonment and 10 million Pakistani rupees fine. PEMRA licensees, including TV and radio stations, do not fall under the ambit of this law."

Back in 2005, FIA/ NR3C obtained greater legislative powers to investigate, prosecute and control electronic crime. Notable cases include pornography and blasphemy. Since then the data was and is being constantly monitored on social media avenues while mobile company data is already accessible to the FIA.

Approving the surveillance of cyber activities has also led to violations to freedom of access and privacy of people. There are examples where the data was misused by state authorities and by some influential people.

While critics oppose the controversial bill claiming the fact that it provides extra powers to government and law enforcement agencies and that it can be misused, they also claim its implementation is a big question.

Around 70% were unaware of the details or benefits of EC Bill, according to a locally survey conducted by an NGO Madawa Foundation. 75% didn’t knew how it could be beneficial for general public and 80% showed reluctance to approach police if they were harassed online.

Recently, the FIA has started filing cases under EC bill for misuse of social media against the State. Surprisingly, five people were arrested during this week while investigations were started as soon as government statement was released in last week. Charges were filed and cases began right away after their arrests.

“The attempt is to teach manners to party workers and public not to misuse social media” said Talal Chaudry, a Minister of the ruling party.

Chairman PTI Imran Khan said ‘the arrests of these people and our party workers for false blame over social media activities is not justified. Government is misusing the bill and their rights. Police is an independent department and should not be a slave to state. No one can take our independence away to speak on social media. Criticism over government department, officials or even army is a part of healthy criticism. It’s been there for ages even before advent of social media sites.”

Not only this, the tale of four missing bloggers has made international headlines despite limited local coverage. These bloggers were arrested in start of this year, accused of posting anti-state and anti-religion posts over some social media pages. One of these pages is the famous ‘Bhainsa’. The bloggers went missing for around two months. During this time, families of the affected, NGOs and other civilians raised their voices against the incident. FIA took immediate action and investigated the cases. Nothing was proved and the bloggers were returned home safely and quietly one night. None of them revealed what happened to them. People believe the agencies to be culprit behind the missing persons, who don’t reveal due to life threats and pressure by agencies.

Examine: Three weeks on, five missing Pakistani rights activists return home

Harassment at peak: who’s behind/ who is at stake?

“We ignore when our girls are harassed or bullied. We cannot do anything being a minority community,” said Rehmat Bibi, a resident of Kachi Abadi in I-11, a mother of two girls 12 and 15 who study at a local school.

“I would urge all females to avoid being public on social media, making friends online and sharing their personal information. Your family privacy and respect is at stake,” says Zunaira.

It’s not just Zunaira, there are a lot of people especially females who had similar painful experiences of being harassed online every day in different ways. Some take action while others just tolerate it for many social reasons.

Creating a safe online space for women

Pakistan ranks as one of the worst countries in the region and the world for gender equality. Internet access is an opportunity for gender equality but gender equality advocates point out that the opportunity will be squandered if Pakistani society imposes its own restrictions on women in cyberspace.

We need to advance law and justice in Pakistan. Speedy, swift and transparent processes are the need of the day. Justice is all what we need at first”, says Naeema who is a young and passionate lawyer working for Human rights sector in Pakistan.

Experts suggest that improvements to our justice system are vital and urgent. The rule of law is weak in Pakistan and needs a complete over hauling of our systems. Our courts, our police and law enforcement agencies all need to be impartial, fair and alert. Their response times to be as quick as possible. The State must provide justice to each and every individual, irrespective of caste, creed, social status or nationality. Agencies such as FIA have to play their special roles and improve the overall situation of our broken systems. Likewise the cybercrimes needs a serious set back by Law enforcement agencies, their case processing times to decrease, process simplified and quick for all citizens.

Speaking at an occasion, the founder of our nation Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said: “Pakistan should be based on sure foundations of social justice and Islamic socialism which emphasis equality and brotherhood of man….These are the basic points of our religion, culture and civilization.

The first duty of a government is to maintain law and order so that the life, property, and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the State.

He further said:

“The people of Pakistan have made sacrifices in order to make our state in the future a really strong and stable state so that we can handle more effectively and with ease our programme, especially for the uplift of the masses.” 

Note: name(s) have been changed due to privacy concerns.

About Aasia Niazi 6 Articles
Aasia Niazi is an ICT professional working with Development sector as IT and Knowledge Management expert. She has completed her education from Pakistan as well as holds a Masters degree from Sweden. Currently she is working with development sector as Data Manager, on a UNHCR funded project. Being a part time blogger and social media manager, she thinks this program will polish her skills to produce better data stories and blog posts.

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