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.