‘Beep Pakistan’ – Pakistan Military’s Domestic Tool to Increase Censorship

‘Beep Pakistan’ – Pakistan Military’s Domestic Tool to Increase Censorship

In a bizarre development, Bahramand Tangi, a former Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Senator, tried to introduce a resolution in the parliament aimed at banning mainstream social media platforms in Pakistan. The resolution, which called for the prohibition of several social media websites such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter — now X, and YouTube, was scheduled for discussion on March 4.[1] Tangi argued for these bans citing concerns over their potential misuse against Pakistan’s interests and to “save the young generation from their negative and devastating effects.”[2] However, following widespread public outcry in Pakistan regarding the controversial resolution, Tangi ultimately withdrew it. Although the resolution did not progress any further, it is significant to note the escalating efforts to suppress critical public opinions in Pakistan.

In the absence of a free press in Pakistan, social media platforms have emerged as a relatively safer space for public dissent in the country. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party members have effectively used the social media to voice their dissent against Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. Pakistani authorities have also struggled to devise a lasting solution to curtail growing anti-establishment opinions on the internet. During recent general elections in Pakistan, internet services were suspended, and certain social media platforms like Twitter/X, Facebook, among others, were temporarily banned.[3] [4] While these measures had a limited impact on the overall election outcome, as independent candidates backed by Imran Khan reportedly secured most seats, the intervention of the Pakistan Army altered the results in favour of other political parties. It is noteworthy that the pro-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) narrative is restricted in the country, and individuals accusing the Army of election rigging are being detained on dubious charges.

In August 2023, the Pakistani government launched its own alternative to WhatsApp named ‘Beep Pakistan’. Reports indicate that the app was developed by Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT) and the National Information Technology Board (NITB).[5] What sets this app apart is its capability to store all user data within Pakistan itself, unlike WhatsApp or Telegram, where data is typically stored outside the country.[6] This localization of data enhances the government and the military’s control over the information dissemination within Pakistan.[7] Drawing inspiration from China’s WeChat app, security agencies in Pakistan now can easily monitor and influence the public narrative through this domestic messaging application. It is evident that the ultimate beneficiary of the data stored through this app will be the Pakistan military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Thus, while government ministries may serve as a front, the ISI will likely be the primary consumers of the information collected.

Unrestricted access to the user data would significantly enhance the ISI’s capabilities to monitor and exert pressure on civilians in Pakistan. Individuals, human rights activists, and journalists are frequently targeted for failing to align with the military’s agenda in Pakistan. With messaging apps like Beep Pakistan, the ISI can potentially exploit personal data to blackmail individuals when necessary. The app comes equipped with standard features such as instant messaging, audio and video calls, and a conference function like Zoom. Any expression of dissent against the military or related hashtags will promptly alert security agencies, enabling them to take appropriate action against the involved person(s). In addition to banning them from the app, their accounts on other digital services can also be subsequently restricted. 

In Pakistan, the increasing censorship on freedom of expression directly correlates with the extensive military control in the country. Historically, the Pakistan military found it relatively easier to manage the public narrative in the absence of regular internet services and social media platforms. However, the emergence of social media platforms post-2010 and the recent events involving Imran Khan have forced Rawalpindi to seek newer and more effective methods to monitor and exert censorship in the country. The military cannot afford to ignore the growing anti-military sentiments in Pakistan, fearing a loss of control and the erosion of its unchecked authority. Furthermore, simply banning social media platforms would negatively impact Pakistan’s international reputation, which is already on the decline. Western countries would likely criticize such draconian measures as a violation of human rights of Pakistani citizens. In February, the United States voiced concerns over restrictions on the exercise of the freedom of expression and association in Pakistan, “including the partial or complete government-imposed internet shutdowns, which includes, of course, on social media platforms.”[8]

Consequently, the military establishment in Pakistan is looking at promoting local messaging apps like Beep Pakistan to monitor civilians and manage the overall media censorship nationwide. There are suspicions that the app’s reach may extend beyond Pakistan’s borders to include monitoring of the diaspora abroad. Notably, Imran Khan has a massive support base among overseas Pakistanis, who have actively tarnished the Pakistan Army’s image internationally by raising the Khan’s issue to the western government officials and human rights organizations. Furthermore, the ISI has struggled to effectively track these “anti-military activities” outside Pakistan.[9] Therefore, the introduction of the new messaging app could potentially enable Rawalpindi to bridge the existing information gap among overseas Pakistanis, akin to the methods employed by Chinese authorities to monitor their citizens abroad. There is speculation that Beijing may be help Islamabad in developing such apps to intensify censorship. With a weak coalition government in Islamabad, the Pakistan military and ISI are likely to double their efforts to introduce such applications throughout the country.

[1] https://www.geo.tv/latest/533334-resolution-for-banning-major-social-media-sites-on-senate-agenda

[2] https://www.dawn.com/news/1819097

[3] https://tribune.com.pk/story/2458878/x-factor-twitter-ban-hits-businesses-news-in-pakistan

[4] https://www.dawn.com/news/1807328

[5] https://www.brecorder.com/news/40256645

[6] https://www.dawn.com/news/1769002

[7] https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/pakistan-unveils-whatsapp-alternative-called-beep-pakistan-1.97439860

[8] https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2024-02-21/us-urges-pakistan-to-lift-internet-shutdowns-social-media-restrictions

[9] https://theintercept.com/2023/06/02/imran-khan-pakistan-military-coverage-ban/

Nadia Abdel

Nadia Abdel

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