Pakistanis warned to stop criticising armed forces

Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, arrives to attend a Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad, Pakistan, (23 March 2017) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Pakistan's army chief has had a torrid time in his first few months in post

Pakistanis have been told not to criticise the armed forces on social media, as the government tries to end a damaging spat with the military.

The interior ministry warned against "activity that undermines the dignity, reputation and honour of the army".

Its statement came two days after TV channels received similar instructions.

The military was accused of undermining democracy when it rejected the findings of an inquiry by the prime minister's office into a row over press leaks.

The so-called "Dawn leaks" affair began in October when the Dawn newspaper reported on tensions between government and military officials.

What have people been saying?

Many Pakistanis have taken to social media in recent days to attack the army's top brass. The new chief of staff, Lt-Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, has been a target of many of the barbs.

One poster tweeted a picture of his predecessor, Raheel Sharif, with the comment: "You are being missed."

Another tweet said: "I want to stand with the army, but somebody please tell me where the army is standing."

Others pointed out the changing mood towards the army.

Image copyright Twitter

Such comments prompted Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to accuse some Pakistanis of "criticising and maligning the armed forces on social media without any reason".

He warned that it was a serious crime and anyone found doing it would be dealt with "sternly and indiscriminately". Humiliating the army or its officers "under the cover of free speech is intolerable", he added.

How damaging is this for the military?

From the day Dawn first reported on the government's spat with the military, reactions have ranged from it being a national security breach to one in which the newspaper is seen to have reported only what had been public knowledge for decades, reports the BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad.

For almost all the time since independence in 1947, top decision making in Pakistan has remained either directly or indirectly under the military's control, our correspondent says.

A section of society, including some political groups, have endorsed the military's moves largely on the premise that many politicians from the parties which tend to govern Pakistan are corrupt and even a "security risk".

The last three years saw a massive effort by the military's public relations wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), to present former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif as a "saviour".

But since 10 May, when the ISPR withdrew the explosive 29 April tweet that said the directives issued by the prime minister's office had been "rejected", many of its supporters have been disappointed at what they see as capitulation.

Who stands to gain from this?

The military establishment is seen as being sensitive to criticism on social media, and was accused of being behind the "kidnapping" in January of several liberal bloggers who had aired unfavourable views.

The issue saw some allegedly pro-military activists and a section of the judiciary highlight perceived "blasphemous" posts, forcing the government to negotiate the blocking of such content.

By comparison, the storm of protest over the "Dawn leaks" has assumed a direct anti-military tone, and none of the material can be censured on grounds of blasphemy.

Many observers believe the episode has sparked the most vicious anti-military campaigns since the 2007 sacking of the chief justice by military ruler Pervez Musharraf and the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces in a raid in Abbottabad.

Critics say the affair shows the military has no respect for legitimate civilian governments.

It is thought the military's "retreat" has delivered political dividends for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government less than a year before a general election is scheduled to be held.

But allowing such criticism to continue in country with such a powerful military might not go down well.

Even though the military "withdrew" the 29 April tweet - the entry remains on its main media account, many observers note.

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