Four of five activists abducted in Pakistan in January have been accounted for, with the police and relatives confirming their release on January 28. Bloggers Asim Saeed and Waqas Goraya have since left the country. The families of both Salman Haider and Ahmed Reza Naseer said they were safe as well. Haider, a poet, activist and university lecturer, has returned home, while the whereabouts of blogger Naseer have not been disclosed. Samar Abbas is still missing.

All five men were sceptical of Pakistan’s military and the religious right wing. They were trying to push back against the shrinking public space left for people who believe in a secular Pakistan. And they did so benignly by being active online, contributing to secular Facebook groups such as Bhensa, and by writing poetry.

There is a sinister difference between how vocal they were before their abduction and their silence after their release. None of the four men who were released have spoken about their ordeal, about who kidnapped them, or what they went through. There have been no statements at all, nor any photographs taken. In fact, their release seems anything but.

Media clampdown

While they were missing, the media displayed a largely familiar ambivalence to their plight. The probability that the state may have detained its own citizens without any legal justification, that it may have done so against defenceless citizens whom most people hadn’t even heard of until their abduction, and that their opinions may have been the inevitable cause of their abduction barely had any traction. Instead, the focus was on their alleged blasphemy (blasphemy is illegal in Pakistan and carries a maximum death penalty). With their “no smoke without fire” approach, conservative presenters conjectured that their abduction must have been proportional to the crime they must have committed. In a rant (that eventually led to him being charged with making a hate speech and got his news channel temporarily shut down), a televangelist-turned-anchor alleged that protestors calling for the release of the men were trying to cover up their blasphemy. He customarily held India responsible, and took it upon himself to defend the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence from the protestors.

The media’s reaction isn’t surprising. In Pakistan, “blasphemer” is a convenient, almost reflexive tool used to silence anyone who even mildly disagrees with the country’s Sunni orthodox Islamo-fascist discourse. It also helps that over the past few years, the military has been tightening its control over the media in the name of security. In 2014, Geo, Pakistan’s largest broadcast network, was temporarily shut down after it accused the Inter-Services Intelligence of attempting to kill one of its journalists. The Express Group was also targeted multiple times. In October, Cyril Almeida, a staffer at Dawn newspaper, was put on the Exit-Control List, preventing him from leaving the country, after he wrote a story that alleged the military was still abetting militants. These attacks and admonishments intimidate the media to toe a line that makes any kind of criticism of the state dangerous. That partly explains the role social media has played as a platform for dissidents.

Dangerous detentions

It was a reasonable assumption to think that closed Facebook groups and anonymity on Twitter and Reddit could afford one the space to post cheeky memes, rants, and share thoughts with likeminded people away from the unforgiving eyes of the mainstream – but that was not so. It seems that in its attempt to quash any and all dissent, the spooks have moved from the mainstream to those tiny corners of the internet, detaining individuals that belong to no political party, have no aspirations for office, and, in short, pose no credible threat to a 700,000-strong military.

The needlessness of these detentions is what is so jarring. The military is enjoying a wave of popularity in the wake of operations against militant networks that have been largely successful. The economy is looking up, terrorist attacks have come down, foreign investment from China is pouring in, and despite a scandal hounding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ever since the Panama Papers disclosed his family’s holdings in offshore accounts, the government looks stable. This isn’t an illegitimate government under siege.

More ominously, the detentions signify something else: that even a popular state in peacetime with no credible threat to its power can be as paranoid as the worst autocracy. And get away with it.