Men, some wearing facemasks, check a mobile phone on a street during a government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Rawalpindi on March 25, 2020. (AFP / Farooq Naeem)

Dispute over Pakistani opposition politician's arrest sparks false claims of civil war

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After Pakistani media reported on a dispute between police and the army over the arrest of an opposition politician in Karachi, scores of Facebook and Twitter posts claimed Pakistan was on the brink of civil war. The posts were amplified by mainstream Indian media, which broadcast false and misleading information, including reports that ten police officers had been killed. While Pakistan’s army and police did have a disagreement over the politician’s arrest, the government said no shots were fired and dismissed reports of civil war as “malicious and fabricated”. The misleading posts used old and unrelated photos; Pakistan has requested that Twitter remove accounts spreading misinformation about the incident.

Opposition leader Muhammad Safdar was arrested October 19, 2020 in the southern port city of Karachi. Local media reported claims that in order to execute the arrest, paramilitary troops had kidnapped the Sindh police chief. 

Shortly after news of the purported kidnapping emerged, scores of posts appeared on Twitter and Facebook, for example here on October 21, claiming that “civil war” had broken out in Karachi.

The post includes two photos of urban conflict. It has a lengthy caption that says, in part:  “'Civil-War' Like Situation in Karachi After Clashes Between Sindh Police & Pakistan Army Over Kidnapping Rumours of Police Chief.”

The post includes a link to its purported source, an online report by news portal.

A screenshot taken on October 23, 2020 of the misleading Facebook post

The photos used in the misleading post are both old: the top photo is a 2013 image of a bombing in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and the second photo is a 2006 image of an attack in Karachi.

This tweet on October 20, which has since been taken down, claimed that “heavy fire” was underway in Karachi -- but named an area of the city that does not actually exist. 

“#BREAKING : Heavy fire fight between Pak Army and Sindh Police is going on in Gulshan e Bagh area of #Karachi after Pak Army tried to take custody of a Superintendent of Sindh Police Md Aftab Anwar. #LocalSMreporting”

A screenshot taken on October 23, 2020 of the misleading tweet

There is no "Gulshan e Bagh area" in Karachi. 

Indian media amplification

The false and misleading social media posts were picked up and amplified by mainstream Indian media.

For example, citing a tweet, Indian news channel NewsX broadcast “breaking news” that ten policemen had been killed in clashes with the army in Karachi. 

The recording of the broadcast is still available on the channel's Facebook page here. The headline reads: “Pak army vs Police: 10 policemen killed in clashes. Pak at brink of civil war”.

A screenshot taken on October 23, 2020, of the misleading Facebook post

India’s News18 channel broadcast a report on October 21, 2020 in which the news anchor claimed: “It’s an all out war between Sindh police and army after heavy firing and clashes continued all night in Karachi. Heavy fire took place after army tried to take custody of a superintendent of police Muhammad Aftab Anwar."

A screenshot taken on October 23, 2020, of the misleading Facebook post

Pakistani denials 

The scale of the online misinformation campaign prompted Pakistan to issue a statement denying that civil war had broken out. 

“We have seen the malicious and fabricated news reports and propaganda campaign in some sections of the Indian mainstream and social media, planting baseless stories about Pakistan,” Pakistan Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said at a news briefing on October 22 in Islamabad, a transcript of which is available here.

“Rather than reporting on the humanitarian crisis in [Kashmir] the Indian media chooses to spread fake and sensationalist news about Pakistan to detract from core issues.”  

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said that it had requested Twitter block handles spreading “fake and baseless information targeting Pakistan.”

“In the wake of current smear campaign of spreading false and baseless information targeting Pakistan, its cities and institutions, PTA has stressed upon Twitter to effectively block handles involved in the campaign.”

What happened in Sindh?

Pakistan’s opposition party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz claimed the Sindh police chief had been kidnapped by the country’s powerful army and forced to arrest an opposition leader.

“Karachi events endorse our narrative 'State above the State'; You ridiculed mandate of provincial govt; Trampled on sanctity of family privacy; Abducted senior police officers to extort orders; Defamed our Armed Forces; Addl IGP’s letter proves that you subverted the Constitution,” Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the PML (N) tweeted.

Pakistan’s army ordered a probe into the alleged abduction of a provincial police chief, Reuters reported

Sindh Police confirmed in a series of tweets that there had been a dispute with the army over the arrest, but said that the issue was being resolved peacefully. 

The lengthy thread says, in part: “Sindh police is immensely grateful to the Army Chief for realising the sense of hurt that prevailed within a uniformed force, and for promptly ordering an inquiry into the matter, which he has also assured will be impartial in order to restore the prestige of Sindh police.”