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Pakistan Reader# 177, 21 May 2021
Imposing ban on popular social media applications based on moral or ethical grounds, seriously undermines the right to liberal expression in a democratic set up.Sneha M
Internet Censorship is a practice of suppressing or restricting online content creation, distribution, and access to it. These online contents can be censored either by the government or private entities, claiming safety and security reasons and a means of suppression of free expression and governmental dissent. Across the world, there are various levels of censorship that persist: some nations, such as Australia, Canada, or Greenland, have very little or no censorship, whereas China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea have fully government-controlled censorship.
Freedom House is an organization that aims to measure the extent of internet freedom in Sixty-five countries around the world through its annual report titled "Freedom on the Net." On a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free), Pakistan scored 26 out of 100, subsequently falling into a "Not Free" online environment (Freedomhouse.org, 2019). In Pakistan, the internet domain is severely controlled by the government for decades. There have been various instances of restrictions announced by the officials in the country since 2008 to the recent shutdown of social media during Anti-France Protests. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has been on the frontline of blocking popular apps, be it YouTube or lately TikTok, for "reasons such as blasphemous and pornographic data, as well as anti-state, judiciary, and armed forces sentiments."
Widely official social media sites, networking tools, and other online tools all appeal to a thriving online environment. However, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which authorizes the PTA to control the content, places restrictions on online content and pulls down content that hurt "religious sentiments of Pakistan." Legitimizing the authority of PTA was further strengthened by the implementation of "The Removal and Blocking Unlawful
Online Content 2020 (RBUOC). The rhetoric that followed was, according to the RBUOC, people are in complete liberty to exercise their freedom of expression as long as it does not "intimidate," "damage," or "excite disaffection against the prestige of the Federal or Provincial Government," it will be considered a threat to Pakistan's "integrity, stability, and protection," and will be withdrawn or blocked. ("In Pakistan, social media platforms risks ban under new draconian laws" Global Voices, November 27, 2020). Adding to that, PTA now has the power to compel all international social media platforms to include all information or data in a decrypted, readable, and understandable format, including subscriber information, traffic, material, and any other information or data. If companies violate the law, they could be charged, fined, or blocked. Consequently, many scholarly reports have highlighted the decline in freedom of expression, digital rights, right to information further in 2021. An interesting case to analyse with this backdrop will be TikTok, stuck in a loop of permit and forbid in Pakistan.
A case study of TikTok App:
TikTok, a video-sharing app swept across the country thoroughly since its inception five years ago. The app encourages people to create and share a variety of short videos reflecting from entertainment to education. TikTok became revolutionary mainly for four reasons; easy accessibility: Anyone who owns a smartphone with cameras could use the app. Also, unlike Facebook and Twitter, one needs not to be literate to use TikTok, and the internet rate has drastically come down, facilitating untroubled access.
Two, bridging the class divide: In Pakistan, many users are from rural and working-class communities. On the other hand, the other social apps like Instagram and Twitter cater only to the urban population who are primarily proficient in English; hence, this eliminates the class divide in the country. Three, thriving rural economy: The younger generation found ways to construct and be financially self-sufficient by becoming content creators, influencers, brand ambassadors of companies. Finally, elevation in global representation: The community's desire to see themselves represented onscreen has been frustrated by the lack of authentic Muslim representation on many platforms. As a result, Muslim content creators have chosen to take matters into their own hands, thanks to the immensely influential social media app TikTok.
Nevertheless, the app faced backlash from religious fundamentalists and as well as the government. The PTA initially imposed a ban on TikTok in October 2020, claiming "immoral and indecent content." The decision was later reversed after the app, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance pledged to moderate content adherence to local laws. Nevertheless, a year later, in 2021, the Peshawar High court ordered the PTA Authority to ban TikTok for spreading obscenity. After hearing a petition signed by advocate Nazish Muzaffar, the court agreed that the app was "detrimental to the youth of Pakistan" and was "against the set norms and values of the country." ("Pakistan bans TikTok again," The CNN, March 12, 2021). However, this second ban was lifted on April 1, 2021, after TikTok officials confirmed that they are committed to "promote a safe and a positive community online." ("Pakistan lifts TikTok ban for a second time," Aljazeera, April 1, 2020).
Apart from this, Prime Minister Imran Khan, in an interview, said that social media
apps like TikTok are badly harming society's values. Nowhere in the world would one find heads of state being critical of a social media app. One question that could be raised is, "Amidst the growing popularity of the app, why is the app caught up in a loop?". Two, "Does it pose a threat to religious sentiments of Pakistan?
Two factors can explain a solid answer to the above question: One, Profitable Market; According to the analytics firm Sensor Tower, Pakistan is TikTok's 12th largest market in app installs, with 43 million installs in total. By the first quarter of 2020, ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, generated $5.6 billion in revenue worldwide. At the height of the pandemic, TikTok witnessed a growth of more than 130% globally ("TikTok owner ByteDance first-quarter revenue soared at around $5.6 billion", Reuters, June 17, 2020). The Chinese-owned TikTok was the highest-grossing non-gaming app in February 2021, with over $110 million in user spending, up 1.9 times from February 2020. Hence, the statistics mentioned above clarify why TikTok authorities are willing to moderate content and adjust according to a single country's needs and local laws, profit earned by the company. An obvious question that could be raised is why didn't the TikTok authorities go behind those countries that banned the app?
The second factor, playing out in the indecisiveness of banning or preserving the app, is the China Factor. Unlike India and the United States that have already banned TikTok claiming both data privacy and national security reasons, Pakistan does not have a tense political relationship with China. India banned TikTok and other Chinese apps in response to the military clash between the Indian and Chinese troops in disputed territory in Ladakh. The two countries, China-Pakistan, share close economic, diplomatic, and military ties, so going against the interest of its ally might have further consequences and hence caught up in a loop.
Answering the second question, "Does it pose a threat to religious sentiments of Pakistan?". Simply put, the issue is complicated. Classifying online content into moral and immoral content has never been easy, for a simple reason, that man's morality can be another's immorality. Pakistan is a highly conservative, religious, and patriarchal society that tries to inject religion into all aspects of life. Unfortunately, Pakistan calls itself secular and democratic, but it is one of the most theocratic states following strict interpretations of its religious script. The PTI, in this case, has failed to incorporate the evolving nature of its population. Unlike the opinion of some conservatives, liberals argue that the ban is a blanket power to suppress dissent. Reportedly, with the onset of a pandemic, the app has had a substantial increase in content that mocked the present government's policies, PTI. "The voices in these apps are largely coming from a middle-class man, a labourer, shopkeeper, and this is far more dangerous to the government than a group of intellectuals debating on Twitter." ("Pakistan TikTok Ban Explained," The Vice, April 7, 2021). Therefore, the argument of threat to the religious sentiments of Pakistan is only an excuse for a more significant cause of suppressing the voices. Also, the more prominent opinion of the young in Pakistan is that many other social media platforms and Pakistan TV dramas showcase "vulgarity" but are exempted from the list of banned apps in the country. Therefore, some analysts and journalists claim the ban was imposed to thwart criticism of Prime Minister Imran Khan's COVID-19 response rather than forbid immoral or indecent content, which is against the norms of Pakistani society.
In conclusion, these online contents do not match the image that the establishment holds itself as a country is where the problem lies. Ideally, if the PTI government's decision were backed by logic and not a grey area of morality or immorality, the outcomes would have favoured the government. However, this is not the case in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the story of social media censorship is not over. Internet Crackdown is in the roots of corrupt governments that curb free speech; rather, governments must assimilate its diversity and pluralism in expression and embrace different opinions and interests. Criticism and dissent are two fundamental tools in keeping the ruling government of any democratic country on its knees; anything otherwise comes into the purview of legitimacy and effectiveness of "Democracy" itself.
About the author
Sneha M is Postgraduate scholar, CHRIST (Deemed to be University). She is currently enrolled with the NIAS certificate course on Contemporary Pakistan.
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