Monday September 25, 2023

Regulation or control?

February 21, 2020

Successive governments in Pakistan have used both repressive laws and government advertisements to control the media. This policy of stick and carrot has been adopted by most governments. So the PTI government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan is no different.

After the use of Pemra, the government has now introduced new regulations to control social media. The federal cabinet, without a proper public debate, passed the regulations within the existing cybercrime laws to curb digital and social media freedoms.

Like governments of the past, the current one too has been using government ads. On top of that, Pakistani mainstream media has been experiencing continued censorship.

Both mainstream media and social media played an important role in the rise of the PTI since 2011. Mainstream electronic media gave hours of live coverage to the 126-days long PTI sit-in in Islamabad. Every public meeting addressed by PTI chief Imran Khan was given marathon coverage. As an opposition leader, Imran Khan used both mainstream and social media to spread his message and narrative of change.

Imran Khan was happy when the media would talk about the irregularities of the PML-N government. At the time, he was in favour of a free and independent media and opposed every attempt to curb the freedom of media.

But it seems he has changed his views after taking power. We hear that Prime Minister Imran Khan is not happy with a section of the media for publishing stories of a critical nature about his government.

And now the government has finally decided to also regulate social media platforms. It seems the government is following the international trend to curb online freedom; we see that governments around the world are making it more difficult to criticise government policies and organise resistance through social media.

Even though the stated aim of the new regulations is to regulate social media and to stop the spread of fake news, many think that the real motive is to curb dissent. That is not a good sign and will further weaken the democratic credentials of the PTI government.

We know very well that the government is not very happy with social media. Mainstream media is already under pressure. The current government already has a poor record as far as freedom of media and expression is concerned. Such new laws and regulations will make it more difficult to criticise the government.

These new regulations will make it compulsory for social media giants like Facebook, YouTube, Tik Tok, Twitter and others to register with a newly formed authority. They will have to open offices in Pakistan within three months to continue their operations in the country.

The law requires companies and platforms providing social media services to appoint a representative in Pakistan who will deal with a National Coordination Authority. The authority will be responsible for regulating such companies.

The regulation also requires social media companies to make data servers in Pakistan within one year. The law makes it compulsory for social media companies to provide data of accounts found guilty of targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, causing harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content.

It will be the authority's prerogative to identify objectionable content to social media platforms for them to take down. In case the companies fail to act on directives within 15 days, the authority will have the power to suspend their services or impose a hefty fine of up to Rs500 million.

Such powers to LEAs can be misused and opposition political parties and activists are vulnerable to being targeted, as history shows us. The government will regret introducing such a law when it is not in power. The PML-N government introduced many repressive laws. But after losing power, the PML-N itself fell victim to such laws.

The main purpose of the new regulations seems to be to control and regulate digital media. Authorities already have control over mainstream media, especially electronic media. This law will further shrink the digital space for dissenting voices and political activists. Such laws are a blatant attempt to curb free speech and control digital and social media.

The writer is a freelance journalist.