If his recent temporary abduction was aimed at deterring a Pakistani blogger from airing critical views of his country’s powerful security establishment and dangerous Islamist militants, his tormenters were dead wrong.
Ahmad Waqas Goraya, who was abducted for almost three weeks in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore last month, is still determined to fight for what he sees as his contribution to build a better Pakistan.
Goraya, 34, an information technology specialist, says that contrary to widespread accusations that have appeared in some Pakistani media, he did nothing wrong and his social media activism aimed to speak the truth by employing satire.
From his home in the Netherlands, where he has mostly lived during the past 10 years, Goraya is now planning to use his technical knowhow to help social media bloggers guard against hacking and evade detection.
“I am planning to write a detailed manual for my friends to teach them how can they protect themselves online,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Goraya was among the four bloggers who mysteriously disappeared from major Pakistani cities last month. All were associated with social media pages that often criticized Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, politicians, journalists, and in particular religious groups and political parties, some of whom have employed violence to intimidate opponents.
Goraya, the father of a 3-year-old son, says he employed satire on the Facebook page Mochi (Urdu for cobbler) to make fun of populist politicians and television anchors who frequently raised the threat of a military takeover to criticize rival politicians and undermine the country’s fledgling democracy.
He is adamant he never wrote anything that violated Pakistani or Dutch laws or religious and social norms.
“Unlike the traditional media, social media was not censored,” he said. “This was helpful in getting information not otherwise available to the people who needed it most. We were providing people with an alternative perspective.”
His activism was visibly effective. At its peak, Mochi attracted more than 6 million visitors every month. This outperformed many newspapers and television shows in audience numbers. Another page Goraya contributed to was called Shaour (Urdu for awareness). It was dedicated to social issues.
Goraya says he is proud of playing a critical role in shutting down scores of social media pages associated with Islamist militant groups. He says that in recent years he helped form a group of volunteers who looked for pages associated with the Taliban and other violent jihadists. They would gather and share evidence with social media giants Google, Twitter, and Facebook to urge them to shut down these pages because they engaged in hate speech.
But the abduction of the four bloggers in January had a chilling effect on social media activism. Goraya says scores of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds with tens of millions of followers have closed because of the scare their abductions created.
Goraya is still reluctant to talk about who he thinks abducted him and what happened during his captivity. “You know the conditions in Pakistan well,” he said. “The safety of our friends and family is my priority. They are not safe, and they are being harassed in a million ways.”
He says he and his family were terrorized by a campaign of accusations and criticism aimed against him by some elements of the media. Following the bloggers’ abduction, some Pakistani television hosts publicly questioned their patriotism and accused Goraya and others of committing blasphemy by allegedly posting anti-Islam content on their pages.
Blasphemy charges can be deadly in Pakistan, where dozens of individuals have been killed or lynched after being accused of committing sacrilege.
Goraya strongly denies posting anything that violated Pakistani laws or Islamic injunctions.
“We will explore every legal venue against those who accused us of blasphemy,” he said. “This is important so no one can dare level such false accusations in the future.”
Goraya says the accusations forced his family to move twice in one month, and they are still facing social exclusion and strong discrimination because of the false accusations.
“Some of our radical friends and relatives accuse them of being part of what I did, and they are being threatened,” he said. “During my captivity, some of my cousins told my father they would kill me if I survived the abduction.”
Goraya says his suffering has taught him a harsh lesson about the condition of hundreds or perhaps thousands of victims of enforced disappearances. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other rights watchdogs accuse Pakistani security forces of being behind a sizeable number of enforced disappearances of suspected separatists, Islamist militants, and political activists.
“Abduction is a small thing in comparison with the torture victims endure from society and the difficulties they face in gaining justice,” he said.
Abdul Hai Kakar is a journalist with Radio Mashaal.