ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: The Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) on Friday rejected the approval given by the federal cabinet regarding a set of proposals seeking to unabashedly gag the media and curtail freedom of expression and digital rights of citizens online.
PBC Vice Chairman Abid Saqi, in a statement issued here, said that the Bar Council was extremely concerned that the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, reportedly approved by the federal cabinet to tighten and control social media in Pakistan, were made in a completely secretive manner without any consultation with the stakeholders, including the legal fraternity, media community and other civil rights groups.
He believes the PBC that the reported Rules, prima facie, seek to curb online free speech, invade privacy of citizens and restrict their access to information, and hence are not only in conflict with the spirit of articles 14, 19 and 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan but also against the principles of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Pakistan is a signatory to.
“The PBC rejects the draconian regulations aimed at severely hampering social media platforms where over 60 million Pakistani digital citizens express their constitutional rights to freedom of expression under Article 19 and right to information under Article 19-A,” Abid Saqi said.
He urged the government to immediately reverse these draconian rules to restrict assembly, expression and public unity on the internet as these amount to similar authoritarian measures by the Indian government in Kashmir that the Pakistan government hypocritically criticises. He also urged parliament to reject and resist these draconian new measures; otherwise, the enforced silence of Pakistani people will also extend to people’s representatives sitting in parliament, the media as well as the bar and bench.
In Lahore, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a press release Friday expressed great concern at the rules designed to regulate social media platforms. Such a move – which has been made without consulting civil society stakeholders – has no credible justification, it said.
The HRCP said while the government has said that these rules are intended to prohibit ‘unlawful’ online content, the HRCP is concerned that they will enable the designated authorities to control freedom of expression and opinion in the guise of protecting “religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities”. Such broad parameters could well be used to justify removing online content deemed critical of state policies or to access unencrypted user data, making ordinary users vulnerable to the misuse of personal data. Political dissent will be the first to suffer.
Given that the print and broadcast media are increasingly subject to implicit censorship, instituting such stringent rules will contract the space that exists for citizens to access information that the mainstream media does not, or cannot, provide. The HRCP supports the statement issued by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, criticising this move, and urges the government to reconsider its decision.