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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
DIRE CONSEQUENCES FOR PAKISTAN
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.
APPEAL to the PARLIAMENT, the GOVERNMENT and the PRIME MINISTER
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.
ENDORSED BY ORGANISATIONS AND MOVEMENTS
- AGHS Legal Aid Cell
- ASR Resource Centre
- Aurat March Karachi
- Bolo Bhi
- DRF – Digital Rights Foundation
- FN – Freedom Network
- HRCP – Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
- Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan
- IRADA – Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development
- Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights (140 members)
- People’s Commission for Minorities Rights
- PFUJ – Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists
- SAP Pakistan
- Women Action Forum – Hyderabad
- Women Action Forum – Islamabad
- Women Action Forum – Karachi
- Women Action Forum – Lahore
- Women Democratic Front
ENDORSED BY INDIVIDUALS
- Adnan Rehmat – journalist, analyst and media rights activist
- Ailia Zehra – NayaDaur
- Alveena Sajid – Express News
- Ammar Masood – Columnist – AAP Communication
- Aneela Ashraf
- Anis Haroon – Feminist
- Annam Lodhi
- Asma Sherazi – Journalist
- Badar Alam – journalist, former editor Herald
- Gharidah Farooqi – Journalist AAP News
- Haroon Rashid – Independent Urdu
- Jalila Haider – activist, lawyer
- Laiba Zainab – NayaDaur
- Maleeha Mengal
- Moneeza Jahangir – Journalist
- Nadia Malik – Geo News
- Najia Ashar – CEO Global Neighbourhood for Media Innovation
- Nasir Zaidi
- Nasreen Shah – Member WAF
- Neelam Hussain – Member WAF
- Nighat Saeed Khan – Feminist
- Peter Jacob
- Qurrat ul Ain Shirazi, Hum News
- Ramsha Jahangir – Journalist Dawn Newspaper
- Rubina Saigal – Member WAF
- Sabahat Khan – Journalist
- Saqib Jillani – Lawyer
- Sana Ejaz – Journalist
- Shabana Arif
- Shehzada Zulfiqar – President PFUJ
- Sumaira Ashraf Rajput – Public News
- Tahira Abdullah – human rights activist
- Umaima Ahmed – TNS
- Wahaj Siraj – CEO Nayatel
- Zeenat Khan
- Zoya Anwer – Freelance Multimedia Journalist