Pakistan Reader# 243, 30 October 2021
The government justifies its restrictions in the name of curbing misinformation and upholding morals; however, it reflects a gradual infringement on personal rights
Ahead of the International Internet Day on 29 October, a report revealed that the state of media freedom in Pakistan had slipped to 25 points out of 100 in 2021 from 26 points in 2020. The report titled “Regulatory Repressions Amid Pandemic: State of Digital Media Freedoms in Pakistan 2021,” looks at five parameters which are access, online freedoms, privacy, legal framework and judicial actions. The outlined that the weak state of media freedom is linked to several regulations introduced by the government to restrict online content and the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA).
Over the past one year, the debate around media freedom, especially amid a fast-paced move towards digital platforms, has increased. The government has introduced several rules that people in the media have termed an infringement on people’s rights. One example is that of the ban on the popular social media and video sharing app, TikTok, reportedly to prevent circulation of blasphemous, pornographic and anti-state content.
Increasing regulations on the digital media sphere
Another one of the latest attempts to regulate the digital sphere is the notification of the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Contents (Procedures, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules 2021” earlier in October. Under this, anyone can register a complaint demanding the removal or blocking of online content they find offensive on social media. In case the social media company fails to remove the said content, they could be slapped with a fine amount to Rs 500 million. The News International termed this development “another way to curb freedom of expression” reasoning that the government wanting to regulate every aspect of information flow could create an autocratic state.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) have been leading the government’s campaign to regulate digital media content. In September, the PTA chairman retired Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa defended these regulations saying that while Pakistan would like to see the social media market flourish in the country, the social media giants should respect the laws of the land. Other PTA officials echoed the same and said that since social media giants were based outside Pakistan, they were not serious about addressing concerns over blasphemous, defamatory and sectarian content online.
A similar and much debated regulation is the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, which the then government under Nawaz Sharif passed. The PECA was seen as a necessity to “provide a comprehensive legal framework to define various kinds of electronic crimes, mechanisms for investigation, prosecution and adjudication in relation to electronic crimes.” However, critics at the time warned that this Act could lead to unchecked power to the federal government and pave the way for implicating individuals in criminal cases.
Restrictions beyond the digital media sphere
In a surprising move, the PEMRA introduced restrictions on TV content wherein it called on entertainment shows and serials to restrain themselves from “airing objectionable dramas/content based on indecent dressing, caressing, bed scenes and gestures, sensitive/controversial plots and unnecessary detailing of event(s).” The PEMRA said that several sections of society view such content as a distant reality from Pakistani society and a disregard to Islamic teachings. This move garnered criticism; Dawn termed it a “clamp down on artistic expression” and drew parallels with the restrictions imposed under Zia-ul-Haq.
However, this is not the first time that PEMRA placed restrictions on TV shows. In 2020, notices were sent to several TV serial productions; however, some audiences opined that these serials were starters to difficult discussions on harassment within families, pedophilia, and forced marriages. In Dawn, an article said that the government should not promote the narrative that some TV dramas are leading to the collapse of society's morals.
The above instances outline the government’s gradual overreach into individual and artistic freedoms in Pakistan, which it defends in the name of curbing disinformation. It is important to keep a check on the spread of misinformation and disinformation in the digital arena; however, as the Director at the UN Human Rights Office says, “We can, and should, make the internet a safer place, but it doesn’t need to be at the expense of fundamental rights.”
Ikram Junaidi, “Digital media freedom in Pakistan remains weak: report,” Dawn, 29 October 2021
“Controlling social media,” The News International, 30 October 2021
“Social media platforms should respect Pakistan’s laws: PTA,” Dawn, 14 September 2021
Shehryar Warraich, “Curbs on expression,” The News on Sunday, 4 October 2020
Sadaf Haider, “Pemra's ban on Ishqiya and Pyar Ke Sadqay is an attempt to shut down important conversations,” Dawn Images, 12 September 2020
“Pemra asks TV channels not to air objectionable content,” Dawn, 24 October 2021
“Social media regulation threatens rights, UN warns,” Daily Times, 15 July 2021