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April 5, 2021

Social media rules

Editorial

 
April 5, 2021

Social media rules have been in the news lately with increasing frequency. On April 2, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) sought the report of the inter-ministerial committee that was tasked to examine the rules. The IHC was hearing the petitions filed against the implementation of ‘Removal and blocking of unlawful online content (Procedure, oversight and safeguard) Rules 2020’. These rules have generated a lot of controversy as no democratic society in the world has such stringent rules for blocking and removing online content that the government considers unlawful. The arbitrary manner in which the government developed and imposed these rules spurred a hue and cry across the country from activists and media professionals. This is when PM Imran Khan constituted a five-member committee under Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari. Now the committee is supposed to submit its report with recommendations to the prime minister within a month. Though the committee has announced that it will arrange for public consultations with all stakeholders, it remains to be seen how those consultations proceed and what mechanism it adopts to incorporate the feedback from these consultations.

We have seen earlier how ‘consultations’ have worked which is why there is a general feeling of scepticism around these ones as well. This method of consultation does not produce a critical analysis of the issue at hand. It is important to examine the objections and suggestions of the stakeholders before finalizing the report. It is also imperative to invite members from the opposition to the consultations and discuss the proposed rules in parliament before finalizing them. This matter is of paramount importance for the freedom of expression in the country.

The purpose of democratic institutions such as the National Assembly and the Senate is to provide forums for such discussions. The government has been shying away from parliamentary discussions, which is not in keeping with set democratic traditions. The government has been indulging in either presidential ordinances or promulgating one-sided rules. When it comes to legislation and rule-making, we need the government to seriously entertain differences of opinion. The petitioners against these rules include inter alia the PFUJ, which has been at the forefront to defend the freedom of expression in the country. Now, the government must hold broad-based consultations and so that any rules that are placed on social media in Pakistan are not just a fig leaf over attempts to curb dissent.