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Monday November 29, 2021

Controlling social media

October 16, 2021

One after another attempt has been made over the past few years to control all media – electronic, print, and social. First it was the controversial Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) that rightfully drew flak from civil society, journalists, and the opposition parties alike. Now it appears that the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications has notified the ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Contents (Procedures, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules 2021’. Once these rules come into effect, they will have binding effects on the social media companies offering their services to Pakistani consumers. These rules infringe upon the constitutional rights of the citizens of Pakistan, as guaranteed by Article 19. The rules allow people to file complaints to block or remove online content if aggrieved by online content. Service providers and social media companies will have to block access to or remove the disputed online content, failing which they will face action. They will be required to remedy the contravention and give a written explanation within 48 hours to the satisfaction of authorities. The penalty may be as high as Rs500 million.

Needless to say, these rules come across as yet another way to curb freedom of expression which is a fundamental right in any democratic society. The people have a right to access information anytime and anywhere. In this age of digital revolution it is a paradox that the government talks about a ‘digital revolution’ and ‘digital Pakistan’ and at the same time strives to curb the media and imposes both intangible and tangible strictures on them.

For democracy to thrive and political culture to mature, free flow of information and news is of vital importance, and no government in this age and time should try to achieve the unachievable. Such tactics of curtailing media freedom has already tarnished Pakistan’s image as it stands at such a low rung in the media freedom index in the world. Freedom House's report on Freedom on the Net, 2021 ranks Pakistan on the 25th position out of a 100 on the list of countries where net freedom is allowed to users – with 100 being the best position and zero showing the least net freedom. Attempting to regulate every aspect of information through government channels is dangerous, and simply leads to a more autocratic state where people lose more freedoms and gain less access to information. The fact is that 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. Attempts to muffle that voice are misguided and dangerous.