At a time when spaces for free expression in the country are already shrinking, the announcement of a crackdown on social media has justifiably evoked criticism among citizens, including digital and human rights activists
The Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry’s statement that the government would regulate hate speech on social media and come down hard on fake news has raised serious concerns among social media activists. They fear the government will use this to silence political dissent.
The statement has come at a time when spaces for free expression in the country are already shrinking, and the state is employing different tools to censor content it considers objectionable. Recently, some rights activists and advocates of free speech received warning messages from Twitter about violating the laws of Pakistan. Understandably, the social media giant must have responded to complaints from the government of Pakistan.
This follows up on the government proposing a regulatory authority Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) for the entire media, including social the media. There are concerns about how judiciously the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 will be invoked by the regulatory authority.
Soon after the federal minister’s statement, police in district Multan arrested four persons on charges of uploading "objectionable" speech against Prime Minister Imran Khan on the social media. The police also lodged cases against these social media users on charges which include violation of Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) under which they can be sent to jail for at least a month. The main charge against them, however, was criticising Prime Minister Imran Khan’s actions and government policies. In another case, Maulana Abdul Rauf Yazdani and his three followers were booked for criticising PM Khan for announcing a "plan to establish 1,100 cinemas" in a speech. The case was lodged after somebody uploaded his speech on social media in Aziz Pura, Multan.
Earlier, the government had taken stern action against activists of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) for using social media for its campaign against state policies. A few weeks ago, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), arrested a senior journalist from Lahore, Rizwan Razi, and lodged a case against him for "promoting hate and anti-state narrative" on the social media.
"We cannot allow running an anti-state and anti-army narrative. This is not freedom of speech. We also cannot allow speaking against security institutions and issuing fatwas. We need a formal framework to control the social media and take action against fake news," the Federal Minister for Information, Fawad Chaudhry, tells TNS.
He talks about preparing a "comprehensive framework" and mechanism under PMRA which would also regulate social media. "Digital media is taking over formal media and without rules and restrictions it can take a very dangerous shape.
"The government will also monitor social media activity to eliminate fake accounts and take action against fake news. People who violate Pakistan’s cyber laws will be prosecuted. However, there would be no misuse of this law to target political opponents. We want to promote healthy debate and tolerance, and encourage constructive criticism rather than abusing and promoting fake news."
The PECA was brought into effect under the last PML-N-led government amid a lot of criticism. But the party leaders now appear to have seen the light. "Such regulations suppress criticism and freedom of speech and expression," says Ahsan Iqbal, senior PML-N leader. "This is a tool to suppress critical voices. It would face serious opposition in the parliament."
The PPP which was critical of PECA that the previous government had placed on the statute book, is understandably opposed to the current announcement. "This law [PECA] is so harsh. On the other hand, there is no law on data protection," says Farhatullah Babar, a senior PPP leader. "The announcement to regulate social media raises alarm bells about the agenda of the government and what does it want?"
Babar too is worried about the government wanting "to restrain social media activists who present the ‘anti-state’ narrative. This has already been demonstrated in recent days when social media activists, supporting organisations like PTM, have been arrested". He says if the government is serious in taking action against militancy and hate speech "it should first take action against the militant groups operating easily in Pakistan with the alleged backing of certain corners".
Shahid Hassan, Deputy Director FIA who has expertise in dealing with cybercrime tells TNS that freedom of expression will continue, and action will only be taken when there is a clear attack on the dignity of a person. Citing an example, he says, "a person who is not an advocate of judicial activism can post his divergent views on social media but must refrain from using abusive language against a member of the judiciary."
He agrees there are concerns about the mechanism to criminalise acts committed online and how not to invoke this law on the basis of personal likes and dislikes. Many a time, he says people post content which is objectionable but there is no criminal intent involved. "They are not aware they are culpable under law."
A major complaint against FIA authorities is that they try to include charges of cognizable and un-bailable cybercrimes like cyber terrorism in the FIRs just to ensure that the accused do not get out and the case remains un-compoundable. On many an occasion, the judges hearing these cases have removed such clauses and granted bails to the accused. An FIA Investigation Officer (IO), on condition of anonymity, refutes the charge and clarifies that unlike in the police cases they do not hound the accused. "Following the registration of an FIR, we collect evidence first and make arrests once these are credible and sufficient."
Aftab Alam, an Islamabad-based lawyer, believes there was no need to include cyber terrorism, defamation and hate speech in PECA because these are already covered in ATA, civil & criminal laws and Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) respectively. "The premise for this law was to monitor cyber-crime like online fraud, data theft, fraudulent online transactions, identity theft, etc. but other subjects were included even though they do not fall within the ambit of this law."
Alam points out "there are no data protection laws and mechanisms to secure digital safety of users that can protect them from cyber attacks but only cyber crime laws that are invoked once a crime is committed. We do not have anything on the preventive side."
Internet governance and public policy expert, Fouad Bajwa, foresees global social media giants serving the interests of the state of Pakistan because "they are doing business and do not want to lose it by refusing to comply. Over the last year, the government’s requests about blocking social media accounts have increased and so has the level of compliance."
Within the country, it is the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which under Section 37 of PECA can remove, block or restrict access to inappropriate online content once pointed out by some organisations having access to its monitoring portal. The decision can be challenged in a high court within 30 days.
Also read: A case against banning ‘hate speech’
Ammar Jaffri, former Additional Director General, FIA, says that Pakistan has not signed the cybercrime convention, also known as the Budapest Convention, "which is a way to address internet crimes by seeking help from other nations. It is the only binding international instrument on this issue and serves as a guideline for any country developing comprehensive national legislation against cybercrime".
Human rights activist and former ANP member Afrasiab Khattak sums it up: "Throughout the civilised world, we see the media is self-regulatory. We can learn from the best practices in the world. The intention of the government is not to regulate media but to shut opposing voices. There is a need to create awareness rather than control the social media with a stick. Such policies reflect an authoritarian system which is bad for the country."
(This an edited version of the article that appeared in print)