Category: Press Release

27 Apr
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Harsh regulations curbing civic freedoms in Pakistani online spaces: report

ISLAMABAD: Internet freedom in Pakistan declined dramatically during 2020 due to increased governmental blocking of political, social, and cultural websites, beefed up operationalization of an undeclared policy of connectivity restrictions, increased disinformation and weaponization of the cybercrime law PECA as a tool to curb dissent.

This is the crux of the findings of the “Annual Pakistan Media Legal Review (PMLR) 2020” report launched by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), an independent Pakistani organization working on issues of civil liberties, to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

“The accumulative effect of these outcomes,” according to the report titled “Growing Fear and Hate in Pakistani Online Civic Spaces,” was that the already unfriendly legal framework governing freedom of expression, right to information and digital rights in Pakistan worsened considerably during 2020.

Launching the report in Islamabad, IRADA Executive Director Muhammad Aftab Alam announced that “We havededicated this year’s Pakistan Media Legal Review 2020 to late I. A. Rehman – an iconic human rights defender, an uncompromised voice for freedom of expression and rule of law – as an acknowledgment for his unprecedented contribution and efforts for realization of rights of marginalized segments of the society.”

As per key highlights of the report, “Pakistanis experiencing major setbacks in enforcement of digital rights, freedom of expression and right to information – especially in online spaces – through regression in the areas of internet policies and regulations. This is resulting in a rise in censorship, hate speech, digital surveillance and breach of privacy and disinformation and misinformation online.”

The report says that media legal context of Pakistan in 2020 was characterized by an aggressive government seeking to extend and expand its authority to overregulate the media sector and to redefine the boundaries of free speech not just of media and information practitioners, including journalists and online citizens, but also of opposition political parties and civil society movements and their leaders.

Nevertheless, the report added, the government in 2020 accelerated its efforts to beef up internet controls with the intended consequence of expanding its policy of reduced tolerance for dissent.

The Report noted that “the cybercrime law was repeatedly invoked against journalists and opinion makers for exercising freedom of expression and social media activism. During the year 2020, a large number of journalists and social media activists became target of the draconian PECA 2016.Several journalists and rights activists faced inquiries, abductions, investigations and arrests related to their online / social media activities and posts.

As per the Report, “thirteen (13) incidents of actions under the PECA against journalists or human rights activists have been reported during the year.” The Report stated that Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) either has initiated inquires or issued notices to journalists and online information practitioners or cases were registered against them under the cybercrime law. At least two of them were arrested as well for their allegedly unlawful online activities.

The report also noted that that 2020 saw the re-emergence with a vengeance ofbanning of social media applications and platforms. Several social media applications including BIGO Live, PUBG, TikTok, Tinder, Grindr, Say Hi, Tagged and Skout were banned by the authorities.

“Freedom of expression is a guaranteed fundamental right in the shape of Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan,” Mr Alam said, adding that “the government needs to roll back its increasingly coercive policy and hostile practices aimed at curbing free speech and bring them in alignment with the best practices of diversity and pluralism in expression and allow online spaces to be representative of the people’s opinions and interests.”

The complete report has been released on:Irada website.

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25 Sep
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IRADA’s Annual Report on Proactive Disclosure of Information Launched

ISLAMABAD: (September 25, 2020) The Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) has released its annual report on proactive disclosure of information titled: “Right to information laws and transparency: progressive legislation, reluctant governments” in connection with the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), observed every year on September 28.


The study is a three-dimensional (3-D) assessment comprising inter-province comparison (which territory is the most PDI compliant and transparent about voluntarily sharing information online), intra-province comparison (which common departments in provinces are best at sharing their information online) and inter-indicator comparison (which of the common indicators outlined in the four RTI laws are most shared proactively online by the provincial departments).


According to the study, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government has achieved the best ranking and the federal government the worst ranking in terms of transparency and compliance with the mandatory proactive disclosure of information (PDI) clauses of Pakistan’s right to information (RTI) laws governing the federal and four provincial governments, according to a new study.


The study reveals that in the inter-governmental comparison of PDI, the KP government secured first position as the most transparent government in Pakistan with overall score of 67%, while Punjab government got second position with 47% collective score. Sindh and federal governments secured third and fourth positions respectively.


The study also reveals that among the Information Commissions (IC) charged with enforcement of the four respective RTI laws governing the federal and provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Punjab and Sindh, the KP IC has secured first position by scoring 100% marks, followed by Punjab IC with 89% score and the federal IC third at 63% points. The Sindh IC could not be assessed for the PDI because it does not have a website yet.


The results do not include Balochistan because the province does not have second generation laws like the other governments and is still using an outmoded first generation “freedom of information” law rather than “right to information” law.


The study – a comparative analysis of how the provincial governments of KP, Punjab and Sindh and the federal government fare under the 19 indicators common to all the 4 different RTI laws governing these regions – throw up other interesting results. For the purposes of this study, the federal territory is treated as a ‘province’ since the federal RTI law is applicable only on Islamabad, not the provinces.


For instance, the intra-province comparison reveals that among the federal government ministries, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is the best at proactively sharing mandatory information, scoring 53% marks while the Ministry of Interior is the worst among federal ministries with only 26% marks.


Among KP government departments, the Information Department has topped the others by achieving 89% marks while the Home and Tribal Affairs Department has come last with 47% marks.


Among Punjab government departments, the Information and Culture Department has secured the top position with 63% marks while the Communication and Works Department could get only 37% marks and came last.


Among Sindh government departments, the best could be done by the Finance Department by achieving 53% marks to attain the top position while the Information Department stood at the bottom with only 31% marks.


An inter-province comparison of public bodies revealed that the most compliant ones out of 24 public bodies assessed, the KP Information Department was best with 89%, the KP Law Department second at 74% and KP Planning and Development Department third with 68%. This means these three departments were the most transparent and best PDI compliant under any RTI law in Pakistan, beating both the federal government and all other provinces.


The least compliant public bodies in entire Pakistan included Federal Ministry of Interior with just 26% marks while the second worst was Sindh Information Department with only 32%.


In department-wise ranking, the information ministry/ departments collectively occupy the top slot among the most PDI compliant and transparent followed by law departments in second position and finance departments securing the overall third position. The departments of planning/development, communication/works and interior/home occupy the fourth, fifth and sixth positions respectively.


In the inter-indicator comparison, the least disclosed mandatory disclosure indicators by all the federal and provincial public bodies included description of decision-making processes, remuneration, perks and privileges and functions/ duties of staff. Budget/ expenditures and particulars about the recipients of grants, licenses and other benefits are also poorly disclosed indicators.


On the contrary, information related to organizational structure/ functions, staff directories, statutory rules, orders, notifications and relevant Act/ Ordinance are the types of mandatory information most proactively disclosed by the public bodies.


The federal RTI law entails PDI of 43 types of information (or simply indicators) while KP RTI law requires disclosure of 30 indicators. Sindh and Punjab provinces are required to proactively disclose 25 and 24 indicators respectively.


In all there are 19 indicators that are common to all the four RTI laws in Pakistan and the assessment of the status of implementation of PDI clauses by this study has been based on these 19 indicators.


Proactive disclosure is a distinctive feature of Pakistan’s second-generation RTI laws. These laws were enacted after addition of Article 19-A in the Constitution through Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment in 2010. These laws include: the Federal Right of Access to Information Act 2017; the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013; the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013; and the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016.


These second-generation RTI laws require all public bodies, within their respective jurisdictions, to ‘proactively disclose information’ online on their websites. The laws require public bodies to ensure their online / digital presence by disclosing certain types of information on their websites.


However, the number and kinds of information, required to be proactively disclosed, vary in each law. Moreover, each of the laws provides a detailed list of public bodies and covers literally hundreds of public organizations within its respective jurisdiction. Each ‘public body’ as defined in the respective law, is required to proactively disclose legally required kinds of information on its website.


For example, Section 05 of the Federal Right of Access to Information Act 2017 requires all federal public bodies to ‘proactively disclose’ 43 types of information. Similarly, Section 05 of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act 2013 demands 30 types of information to be disclosed proactively by all provincial ‘public bodies’ in the province. Likewise, Section 06 of the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016 necessitates 25 types and Section 04 of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2013 mandates 24 types of information to be disclosed proactively by the public bodies in their respective provinces.


While the overall number of various types of information required by each of the sections varies, there are several clauses on proactive disclosure of information (PDI), which are common in the four laws. It is, therefore, feasible to compare the status of implementation of the common clauses within their respective jurisdictions.

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02 Mar
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On February 28, 2020, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting through PR No. 267 announced the formation of a committee to begin consultation on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. This follows the Prime Minister’s announcement to review the Rules and consult stakeholders, after the Rules drew sharp criticism locally and internationally. However, the government refuses to clarify the legal status of the Rules without which any consultation is merely token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input.

While Cabinet approval for the Rules remains in place, there can be no engagement or consultation. This only shows the government’s intent to use the consultation as a smokescreen while intending to implement and enforce the Rules already prepared and approved. The Rules as they exist, merit no discussion at all. How citizens are to be protected requires an open and informed discussion which takes into account existing procedures, laws as well as how they have been applied. The abuse of authority by the PTA and government, especially their misuse of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to stifle dissent and Section 37 of PECA in particular to report and restrict political speech, will have to be addressed first.

We also call upon tech companies to unequivocally state the terms of their engagement with the government on the Rules. Too often, citizens and end users become collateral in agreements governments and companies reach in breach of their rights, and we wish to remind them their actions will be scrutinized against adherence to global best practices and international principles to protect expression and privacy.

For the benefit of public discourse, we will continue to make public information that illustrates sensible ways of protecting citizens as well as information from comparative jurisdictions, but will not participate in any process initiated to deflect criticism and seeks to draw legitimacy to carry forth the implementation of the Rules that were devised in bad faith.

We demand the following:

– The Rules must be withdrawn by the Federal Cabinet and the decision, as documented through the process, be made public before any consultation is held

– Civil society has been categorical that Section 37 of PECA must be repealed. The consultation must begin by addressing the overbroad and arbitrary nature of Section 37 under which these Rules have been issued and review the abuse of power by the PTA and government in carrying out its functions since the enactment of PECA.

– The consultation must follow an open and transparent process. The committee must make public the agenda, process it intends to follow and clear timelines. All input provided should be minuted and put together in a report form to be disseminated for public feedback with a specified timeline which is reasonable, before which no Rules should be approved or enforced.

To see the list of signatories, view document here.

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14 Feb
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IRADA denounces the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020

Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) denounces the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, reportedly approved by the Federal Cabinet. The rules have been prepared in a completely secretive manner, without any consultation with general public, parliament, social media platforms and civil rights groups. In an Orwellian twist, the piously titled rules, threaten free speech, invade privacy of citizens and restrict their access to information. These are not only in conflict with the spirit of Article 14 (the right to privacy), Article 19 (freedom of speech) and Article 19A (the right to information) of the Constitution of Pakistan. These are also against the principles of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Pakistan is a signatory to.

Another worrying aspect of the newly formed rules is that these go way beyond the scope of the laws — the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 (XVII of 1996), and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 (XL of 2016). The rules, for instance, provide for the office a National Coordinator for which there is no provision in the two laws. Similarly, the responsibilities of the national coordinator and his powers to identify and designate the social media contents as harmful are both vague and arbitrary. Concentrating too much power in the hands of a single individual without clearly laying down the definition of harmful contents is a dictatorial arrangement which goes against the letter and the spirit of a consultative parliamentary democracy that the Constitution of Pakistan provides for.

IRADA is also concerned that the state’s apparatus will use the new rules in the same way that it has applied PECA which was originally meant to be a tool in the fight against cyber terrorism and hate speech but is increasingly being used to curb political dissent. The rules have the potential to give the state a control over the personal online communications as well as access to private data without having to follow any legal or judicial procedures. Since the laws require social media companies to register locally, set up their offices in Pakistan, base their servers in the country and, thus, follow all the local laws allow the government not just to force these companies to share any data that any government agency requires. These also give the government the power to shut down these companies as and when it so desires. The stringent nature of the rules might, indeed, lead these companies to leave Pakistan thereby leaving the country in an information black hole.

IRADA rejects the draconian regulations aimed at severely hampering social media platforms where over 60 million Pakistani digital citizens express their constitutional rights to freedom of expression under Article 19 and right to information under Article 19-A and demands that the government must withdraw these controversial rules immediately. Instead, if so necessary, it should initiate a consultative process to devise rules that genuinely seek to prevent the potential of online harm to individual citizens and vulnerable communities. IRADA also urges the parliament, including all political parties represented in the Senate, National Assembly and the provincial assemblies, to reject and resist these draconian new measures.

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31 Jan
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On government attempts to curtail freedom of expression, right to information and digital rights; and appropriation of internet and cyberspace.

Islamabad – January 28, 2020

We the public, citizens of Pakistan, the media sector and its practitioners, digital rights advocates, human rights groups, legal fraternity and the broader civil society in general, are alarmed and angry at recent government attempts clearly aimed at curtailing our fundamental rights to free speech and access to information through blatant attempts to restrict our digital rights and hijacking of internet and cyberspace to curb open discourse and online socio-economic freedoms and pluralisms, as well as distorting and limiting the media market.

In particular, the following initiatives, proposals and measures at the start of 2020, and preceding it, taken by the government and the state, among other things, as made public by government authorities, reported by the media and/or unofficial information through reliable sources, are alarming:

  • A draftproposal uploaded on its website by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) in January titled “Consultation on Regulating the Web TV & Over The Top TV (OTT) Content Services”
  • Parallel/alternative draft, regulations not made public but reportedly possessed and distributed to selected authorities by PEMRA and presented before the federal cabinet that reportedly include even more stringent provisions than the ‘public’ version of the draft.
  • A draft proposal by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) not formally circulated among the public but shared with parliamentary committees, aiming to establish so-called guidelines to “prevent harm to persons” on the internet but apparently aimed at restricting online freedom of expression and right to information.

A public consultation co-organized by BoloBhi, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), Freedom Network (FN), Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ)  – all independent civil society Pakistani organizations championing the rights of journalists, civil liberties and digital rights of all citizens – and attended by dozens of journalists and media practitioners, digital rights activists, IT industry representatives, internet service providers, human rights groups, women’s rights advocates, lawyers, social media practitioners, and media rights groups, considered in detail all the recent announced and unannounced government measures and official and unofficial drafts.

All the above proposed measures, policies, drafts and proposals were rejected outright with consensus by the participants of the open consultation. The stakeholders and participants agreed that there is no need for the proposed drafts and proposals at all and, therefore, no need to respond to the individual clauses of both the declared and undeclared drafts from PEMRA, PTA and other sources, as they are redundant. Proposing amendments to these drafts would amount to  lending legitimacy to their unfair and non-representative, and often malicious, intent and content.

The stakeholders rejected the drafts in their totality as attempts at expanding the PEMRA footprint slyly by usurping and self-according to itself the mandate to regulate the internet with the thinly disguised aim to regulate online content. PEMRA’s legal mandate is to regulate the broadcast industry, not even regulate broadcast content, let alone online content,  while any attempts to self-expand its mandate to regulate the internet are dangerous by implication, and downright illegal, which will end up undermining Pakistan’s digital future.


The participants agreed and declared the following:

  1.     The environment for free speech for the citizens and the media is already heavily curtailed in Pakistan as part of an ongoing process of suppressing civil libertiesand engendering a climate of censorship. These newly proposed regulations and measures, through publicized and unpublicized versions of drafts, can and will be used to censor online content and curb freedom of expression and right to informationof media practitioners and citizens.
  2.     These anti-freedom of expression, anti-right to information measures and drafts cannot and should not be institutedthrough ‘regulations’ by bypassing legislative processes or without direct public-parliament consultations, or in violation of Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution. Furthermore, the  proposed regulations are beyond the statutory mandate of PEMRA and therefore must not be adopted through regulations or notifications alone. This is obvious in the much higher license fee for news and current affairs Web TV channels as compared to other entertainment Web TV platforms in the proposed regulation. The drafts will also disproportionately impact independent content creators due to the proposed onerous licensing requirements.
  3.     The official and unofficial drafts, including those from PEMRA, are thinly disguised as draconian attempts to discourage new media journalism, including YouTube / website channels being run by Pakistani journalists who have been forced out from mainstream media over the past two years by the authorities to curtail their professional and/or entrepreneurial work, or dozens of entrepreneurial and non-legacy current affairs news and current affairs websites that are filling the gaps in information from legacy media and providing useful local community information. No one should be charged a fee for operating information services online through independent websites.
  4.     The proposals and the official and unofficial drafts seem to be attempts to indirectly materialize the otherwise rejected ideaof Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) – the widely rejected proposal floated by the PTI government in 2019 to serve as a single controlling authority for print, broadcast and online media. This will also amount to overstretching of PEMRA’s jurisdiction beyond its statutory mandate and encroach on the mandate of other regulators.This will also amount to overstretching of PEMRA’s jurisdiction beyond its statutory mandate and encroach on the mandate of other regulators.
  5.     Through these regulations, PEMRA seems to be proposing to assume/acquirePrevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA)-type powers for itself, which have already proved controversial(and which themselves require amendments for overreaching mandate in violation of constitutional articles) and a thinly disguised framework to hinder freedom of expression online, as the cases under it against several journalists and citizens prove, and other digital rights.


The participants warned the citizens, the netizens, media, information practitioners, the government, the opposition, legislatures, political parties, civil society, rights groups, media regulators of the following consequences if the proposed new measures, proposals and drafts are approved:

Regression of a digital economic future for Pakistan: Net neutrality and easier and cheaper access to the internet is central for a robust digital future of Pakistan. The newly proposed declared and undeclared measures will become a barrier for a broad range of players in not just the information, telecom and internet access business domains but for digital entrepreneurship and start-up ecosystems as well as contribute to a widening gap between the digital and non-digital natives.

Decreased freedom of expression, increased censorship and diminished digital rights: Pakistan is already poorly ranked on all key annual global indexes of freedom of expression and digital rights, including those of Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), Freedom House (FH) and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The newly proposed declared and undeclared measures will curb online free speech and digital rights further and bring levels of online censorship on a par with offline censorship and damage democracy.

Circumscribed access to information and weakened pluralisms:  Social media access and usage by the citizens of Pakistan is growing as a means of access to information that is now routinely curtailed on mainstream offline media. The newly proposed declared and undeclared measures will not only diminish access to information but also curtail online social discourse and pluralism of information sources that are necessary for Pakistan’s pluralist polity and strengthening human rights and democracy.

The death of creativity, initiative and productivity: Free expression, the arts and visual and performance disciplines are key to a creative twenty-first century digital society. The newly proposed declared and undeclared measures will stifle the arts, strangulate the media, disrupt local community information services, undermine online education and health campaigns, sabotage state-to-citizen digital engagement and outreach, and simply push Pakistan back to the twentieth century.


The participants and stakeholders made a vociferous appeal to the Parliament, the political parties, the federal and provincial governments and the Prime Minister to prevent any and all attempts from all quarters to sneak into policymaking all such measures as the proposed official and unofficial drafts mentioned above that will hinder Pakistan’s march into a digital future in a globally connected world. They urged an immediate official rejection of the measures and drafts in line with the interests of the citizens of Pakistan.


  1. AGHS Legal Aid Cell
  2. ASR Resource Centre
  3. Aurat March Karachi
  4. Bolo Bhi
  5. DRF – Digital Rights Foundation
  6. FN – Freedom Network
  7. HRCP – Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
  8. Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan
  9. IRADA – Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development
  10. Mangobaaz
  11. Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights (140 members)
  12. People’s Commission for Minorities Rights
  13. PFUJ – Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists
  14. SAP Pakistan
  15. Women Action Forum – Hyderabad
  16. Women Action Forum – Islamabad
  17. Women Action Forum – Karachi
  18. Women Action Forum – Lahore
  19. Women Democratic Front


  1. Adnan Rehmat – journalist, analyst and media rights activist
  2. Ailia Zehra – NayaDaur
  3. Alveena Sajid –  Express News
  4. Ammar Masood – Columnist – AAP Communication
  5. Aneela Ashraf
  6. Anis Haroon – Feminist
  7. Annam Lodhi
  8. Asma Sherazi – Journalist
  9. Badar Alam – journalist, former editor Herald
  10. Gharidah Farooqi – Journalist AAP News
  11. Haroon Rashid – Independent Urdu
  12. Jalila Haider – activist, lawyer
  13. Laiba Zainab – NayaDaur
  14. Maleeha Mengal
  15. Moneeza Jahangir – Journalist
  16. Nadia Malik – Geo News
  17. Najia Ashar – CEO Global Neighbourhood for Media Innovation
  18. Nasir Zaidi
  19. Nasreen Shah – Member WAF
  20. Neelam Hussain – Member WAF
  21. Nighat Saeed Khan – Feminist
  22. Peter Jacob
  23. Qurrat ul Ain Shirazi, Hum News
  24. Ramsha Jahangir – Journalist Dawn Newspaper
  25. Rubina Saigal – Member WAF
  26. Sabahat Khan – Journalist
  27. Saqib Jillani – Lawyer
  28. Sana Ejaz – Journalist
  29. Shabana Arif
  30. Shehzada Zulfiqar – President PFUJ
  31. Sumaira Ashraf Rajput – Public News
  32. Tahira Abdullah – human rights activist
  33. Umaima Ahmed – TNS
  34. Wahaj Siraj – CEO Nayatel
  35. Zeenat Khan
  36. Zoya Anwer – Freelance Multimedia Journalist
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