One of the policies of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Digital Pakistan initiative is to generate sustainable innovation, entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for the country’s rapidly growing tech-savvy and entrepreneurial youth.
The initiative aims to promote and encourage entrepreneurship by providing incentives to the IT sector and training young professionals to become freelancers. However, the nascent digital media industry appears to be under threat at local administrative level due to unwarranted restrictions.
A case in point is the ban on independent social media influencers, vloggers and other digital content creators from going live on their respective platforms while on the premises of what is believed to be Asia’s biggest market of sacrificial animals situated in Karachi’s Sohrab Goth suburb.
This latest restriction from the management of the market, which is under the administrative control of the Cantonment Board Malir (CBM), comes after a number of digital content creators were made to sign an agreement.
The said undertaking bound the signatories to report on only the positive side of the market and thereby overlook any and all violations of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) devised in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Advocate Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), strongly disputes the legal standing of the agreement, which doesn’t even carry a letterhead. And Yawar Chawla, the market’s spokesman, denies outright that such an undertaking ever took place.
However, there are videos on YouTube channels, recorded at the market, in which vloggers tell their audiences that they have been banned from going live by the market’s management.
A vlogger with thousands of followers on his YouTube channel told The News that he lost Rs25,000 immediately after being banned from going live by a market official. “That day my live content was sponsored for Rs25,000,” he said, adding that when he told his sponsor that he could only do a recorded video, the sponsor backed out.
The vlogger said he received a message on his phone informing him that the market management has forbidden Facebook Live and YouTube Live at the market. He explained that during live sessions they interact with their audiences and in some cases end up getting some animals sold online. “This gives us a lot of subscribers, viewership and followers.”
Another vlogger said he had been going live secretly, but had to stop. “There’s always the fear that someone might come and catch us, as all YouTube channels and Facebook pages are being monitored by the management.” The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown made many of us run into financial problems, but the animal market had continued to be a good source of income for independent digital content creators. “With these restrictions, however, we’re losing more money,” said the vlogger.
A representative of one of the bigger and more influential digital platforms said they have faced no ban from going live by the animal market’s management. “We’re in direct contact with the high-ups.”
But the cattle farms that have set up VIP tents at the market have refused to let them go live from their tents, said the representative, adding that a few of the farm owners who were earlier ready to pay them for live sessions, “backed out all of a sudden”.
When this correspondent sought the Afridi Cattle Farm representative’s permission to go live, they allowed it. But they had one condition: “Don’t show [any violations of] the SOPs.”
They said that when a violation is shown even unintentionally, it becomes a problem for them. They agreed that the management sometimes directs them not to allow live sessions from their VIP tents.
When the Destiny Cattle Farm representative was approached, they said the market’s administration had decided there would be no live sessions this year. It is pertinent to mention here that the market has its own Facebook page, where the market’s officials often appear live.
Chawla, the market’s spokesman, stressed that they’ve no reason to ban anyone from going live from the market. “The more they go live, the more the market is promoted.”
He said that all vloggers are free to show whatever they want to. “But they should be responsible for what they show,” he said, adding that if anything wrong or fake is shown, they have to take ownership of that as well.
Chawla asked vloggers to get themselves and their digital platforms registered with the animal market, making the assurance that doing so would free them from all the restrictions. When he was asked why there’s a need for registration, he explained that in case of a genuine controversy, even the Federal Investigation Agency won’t be able to trace the vloggers through an IP address for one and a half months, so the market at least needs to have records of them.
There’s no law specifically formulated to regulate bloggers or vloggers. Explaining the legalities of the matter, the DRF’s Advocate Nighat said that the protections that the country’s constitution and other laws afford the people cover bloggers and vloggers as well.
“Prohibiting bloggers from making live videos and from covering anything that might be perceived as negative by the management is a double wrong: it violates the right of free speech of the blogger and the right of information of the hearer.”
The constitution’s Article 19 (Freedom of speech, etc.) reads: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”
Nighat said that any restriction on speech must be in aid of one of the legitimate state interests given in the text of Article 19. She said that right to information is also a constitutional right by virtue of Article 19A.
“As per this right, every citizen has the right to receive information in all matters of public importance. It also means that having access to information in all matters of public importance is a justiciable right, enforceable in courts.”
The advocate said that freedom of speech and right to information are fundamental rights, subject only to reasonable restrictions imposed by law, so they can’t be abridged or restricted by any SOPs devised by the CBM because they don’t qualify as law. “It also needs to be remembered that a reasonable restriction can only be imposed through a statute or mandated by law, and not otherwise,” she pointed out.
“Furthermore, requiring bloggers to show only the positive image of the market and overlook any violations of SOPs violates the principle of freely forming an opinion, as the notion of informed choice is put to shame.”
Advocate Nighat said the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), exercising its powers under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) and the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act, can somewhat monitor the content on online platforms.
However, she pointed out, only the PTA has the jurisdiction to do so, and no law has granted any powers to the CBM to fulfil these functions. “Even otherwise, prohibiting bloggers to make live videos and prohibiting them from portraying a negative image of the market is proactive filtering of content, and the same is a violation of Section 38(5) of Peca.”
The law reads: “No service provider shall be under any obligation to proactively monitor, make inquiries about material or content hosted, cached, routed, relayed, conduit, transmitted or made available by such intermediary or service provider.”
Earlier, Hija Kamran, programme manager of Islamabad-based nonprofit Media Matters for Democracy, had told The News that if the undertaking was true, it was against the artistic freedom of expression of the digital content creators. Artistic freedom is the freedom toimagine, create and distribute expressions free of censorship and political interference or pressures, she said.
She pointed out that the market management seemed to be making efforts to control information because of business reasons. When asked if the CBM could sue the content creators, she clarified that there could not be any defamation for reporting facts. “The government can’t sue citizens, but citizens can sue the government,” she said, adding that the market was established in a public domain.
However, she admitted, a lone digital content creator might never want to indulge in a legal battle, otherwise the undertaking could easily be challenged in the Sindh High Court. Usama Khilji, director of civil society organisation Bolo Bhi, said that the undertaking had no legal standing. “It’s a public market,” he said, adding that under Article 19 of the constitution, every citizen had the right to freedom of speech as well as freedom of the press. “The undertaking undermines both of them.”
He said that had such an agreement been a legal step, a legal notification would have been issued following proper law. “But in this process no law was followed, and they’re using no letterhead, so it’s clearly an underhanded, ill-intentioned move.”
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