Since January this year, at least five bloggers and activists have disappeared in Pakistan.
That includes poet and university professor Salman Haider, well known for his vocal criticism of religious extremism and government abuse of opposition activists. The others that vanished were also deeply critical of the government and the military.
From Karachi, Naeem Sahoutara reports on the chilling repercussions of speaking your mind in Pakistan.
There is shock and anger here in Karachi, after five bloggers mysteriously vanished.
On January 4, Waqas Goraya, a Netherlands-based student, and Asim Saeed, a Singapore-based IT manager, were abducted in the eastern city of Lahore.
Two days later, Salman Haider, a poet, activist and lecturer, was abducted in the capital, Islamabad. Then on January 7, activist Samar Abbas went missing in Islamabad too.
Renowned artist Sheema Kirmani joined this protest in Karachi. The disappearances are shocking and undemocratic, she says.
The bloggers were well known for their liberal and leftist positions, including speaking out against the government and military and its campaign of enforced disappearances.
Pakistani intelligence agencies are accused of using enforced disappearances in the war against ethnic Baloch nationalists.
“This is a new trend and I think it’s a very disturbing development because earlier we have been recording and reporting on enforced disappearances of the nationalists in Balochistan [province] and to some extent in Sindh [province], where these people were fighting primarily for political rights,” says Zohra Yousuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP.
Enforced disappearances are not new in Pakistan, even though such incidents are rarely reported in the mainstream press or discussed in open forums.
But the recent disappearance of the bloggers this year has raised eyebrows outside the country, with the United States and the European Union both condemning the reports.
Pakistani blogger Jibran Nasir says the disappearances send a chilling sign to the online community.
“This act has definitely caused panic and frenzy and that’s why from the first day I have said that this is an act of terror, picking up the people without any rhyme or reason,” said Nasir.
“Hence, people have been forced to shut down their accounts, go underground as far as online media is concerned, not to communicate to the people,” he continued.
People are wary of those that approach them online, afraid that they will be tracked and monitored.
“Various kinds of paranoia has [come] in,” said Nasir.
Pakistan, which now has more than 30 million Internet users, has seen a tremendous growth in social media in recent years.
But in global rankings, the country is among the 10 worst for Internet freedom.
A few kilometers away from the demonstration in Karachi, a group of young bloggers has gathered in a secret venue.
Wearing colorful jeans and t-shirts, they are strategizing on how online campaigns can highlight the plight of persecuted and marginalized groups.
Among them is 25-year-old Sindiya Johnson, who is constantly using her smartphone.
A doctor in training by day, the Christian woman is an active blogger by night.
“Blogging is the free exchange of data points that one experiences and other people can pass on, shape it, add on, pass on, which helps us to, you know, understand the truth,” she says. “It’s easy and ubiquitous. Because of the internet, it’s everywhere, everyone has access to it.”
With 130 members, Johnson’s group has highlighted issues the national media doesn’t regularly cover. Like attacks on minority groups such as Christians and Hindus.
But there are definitely dangers to speaking out.
Back at the protest, activists from an Islamic religious group have turned up and they’re clashing with demonstrators and accusing them of supporting blasphemers.
Over recent weeks reports have emerged that three of the bloggers have returned home, two of who have since fled the country in fear.
As for the Pakistani blogger community? Well, they’re keeping a very low profile.