Secret regulation

 
February 15, 2020

Pakistan appears to be attempting to imitate countries not exactly known for their tolerance of dissent – in a manner which should never be seen in a democracy. On January 28, the federal...

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Pakistan appears to be attempting to imitate countries not exactly known for their tolerance of dissent – in a manner which should never be seen in a democracy. On January 28, the federal cabinet approved the 'Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020', a set of draconian regulations regarding social media content. The government says it made the rules with public consultation but most stakeholders have refuted this claim. Ironically enough, while the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser on Information Firdous Ashiq Awan has said one of the purposes of the rules is to prevent articles and tweets and posts supporting Kashmiris from being removed from social media, the method chosen by the government is hardly above board or tolerant. The draft rules circulated earlier were rejected by activists and intellectuals alike. It should be noted that in the past whenever attempts had been made by previous governments to clamp down on free expression such moves had backfired.

The regulations require that social media companies including Facebook (which owns WhatsApp), Twitter, YouTube, Viber, DailyMotion and a host of others establish offices in Pakistan within three months to answer complaints which would be filed by a 'National Coordinator' appointed to overlook the enforcement of these rules. The companies are also required to remove content deemed objectionable by the National Coordinator within 24 hours and to provide information about users on demand. The companies must also prevent content “related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security” from being posted. If a company does not comply, the National Coordinator has the power to block its services and levy fines of up to Rs500 million. It is not clarified how encrypted services such as WhatsApp would be made to comply with these rules.

The measures announced have already drawn strong criticism from international bodies, with the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists demanding they be rolled backed instantly. In addition, there are questions about whether any single person, in this case a National Coordinator, who would be appointed by the Ministries of Information and Telecommunications can determine on his or her own what content is fake, what constitutes extremism or what goes against the values of Pakistan. Many also believe it is unlikely that the massive trillion-dollar companies named in the matter will be willing to set up offices in Pakistan while it is also being pointed out that restrictions of their services will massively hurt online businesses based in Pakistan. There is no doubt the debate will continue and it seems likely the matter could end up before the courts given the manner in which the rules were passed and Pakistan’s constitutional requirements that free expression be protected. In today's world, social media is an important platform for people to voice their complaints and concerns or simply comment on matters that are normally not covered by the mainstream media. The far-reaching ramifications of these rules will be devastating for society as no country can be called a democratic country unless the fundamental right of free speech are protected and respected.



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