Freedom online?

 
September 28, 2020

When the current government first proposed a unified regulatory body to oversee print, electronic and social media soon after taking power, it was widely criticised for doing so without consulting...

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When the current government first proposed a unified regulatory body to oversee print, electronic and social media soon after taking power, it was widely criticised for doing so without consulting stakeholders and trying to control independent voices. Thankfully, the government had at the time backed off. But things have not been completely pleasant on the freedom of expression front. In the most recent example, a few days back we heard social media rumours and reports that there may be efforts afoot to penalise journalists and social media activists for content they had placed online. As per the rumours, the FIA was planning to register cases against working journalists and social activists under the controversial Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act for publishing online material deemed to be against institutions or personalities. The rumours came to an end with the unequivocal denial of any such cases by Federal Minister Shireen Mazari and others. Even so, such rumours keep coming up – as does the PML-N-era PECA law.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has stated that any such act would badly violate free expression in the country and further suppress the right to speak openly about various issues. This is also particularly worrying since social media has given a voice to people who were previously excluded from public debate. Ordinary citizens post their thoughts on popular sites like Facebook and Twitter, which often includes criticism of public figures and their performance. In a country where information is tightly controlled and there are many formal curbs on the media, the relative freedom of social media gives a voice to those who would otherwise not be heard. There is also controversy about the PECA law itself. Back when former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had backed the passage of the bill in 2016, critics of the law had warned that it would usher in a new era of clampdowns on free speech. The law gave the state too much authority to censor speech online and criminalise political dissent. This is not good for any country. It is not good for its democracy; it is not good for its government and it is not good for its economy. We need stability and a sense that Pakistan is moving in the right direction. International watchdog organisations such as the CPJ and Reporters Without Borders have already criticised the limited public space for free expression in Pakistan. We cannot afford to fall into any further notoriety.

We hope that Pakistan will continue to move towards freeing up the media and the right of citizens to express their opinions as promised by the PTI government. The state’s record in tolerating dissent is far from perfect and there is a genuine worry that any action it takes in the social media realm will be to consolidate its monopoly on information. At a time when the country is slowly getting back on its feet after the economic jolts it has taken during the lockdown, what it needs is a citizenry that trusts the social contract. The only way to ensure rule of law is by giving full support to the rights of the people – whether they be journalists or politicians or regular citizens – to openly express their views without fear of reprisal.



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