Reporters Without Borders (RSF) demands that Pakistan’s information technology and telecommunications ministry drop a draconian new set of laws that it proposes to impose on social media sites operating in the country. According to RSF, an examination of these standards exposes worrisome legal risks.
The new regulations, which were published on October 14 under the pompous title “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021,” allow authorities the power to oversee and censor any type of content uploaded on social media platforms.
They cite article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution as a guarantee of freedom of expression, but they also emphasize the need to prohibit any “violation” of that freedom in matters such as the “Glory of Islam,” “Security of Pakistan,” “Armed Forces Criticism,” and Pakistan’s “Relationships with Friendly Countries.”
These ambiguous ideas provide the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), a federal government-controlled regulator, free reign to ban any content that offends the authorities.
Transparency and accountability are required.
In the event of a disagreement, the PTA has the authority to decide unilaterally to block a whole online information system, such as Facebook or Twitter, and fine the company up to 500 million rupees (2.5 million euros).
Worse, the regulations empower the federal and provincial governments, as well as Pakistan’s numerous intelligence agencies, the authority to request that content be removed or accounts be blocked from the PTA. When this happens, the identity of the authority or agency that requested the censoring is kept hidden.
“It is completely logical for a government to strive to regulate online platform content in order to prevent, for example, hate speech or incitement for violence,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific section.
“In its current form, the Pakistani government’s draught regulations contain every potential legal stumbling block, including highly imprecise definitions, the grant of unfettered powers to the government, and a lack of legal remedy for those targeted.” We urge Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to change these legislation as soon as possible to include strong safeguards for press and information freedom.”
RSF has created a worldwide “information and democracy” project to assist in the regulation of the internet information turmoil, which should not be left to governments or platforms. It comprises of a discussion forum, an exchange of information and opinions, and the participation of digital professionals, stakeholders, and political institutions in ensuring freedom of expression in the global online information and communication sphere.
Only a few months ago, the Pakistani government attempted to impose a centralised censorship system across the whole online domain of Pakistan, which is widely regarded as the country’s last bastion of free expression and independent journalism.
In RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan is presently placed 145th out of 180 countries.