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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 246, 4 November 2021

The fragility of Digital Media Freedom in Pakistan



The judicial activism balances increasing curbs on digital media in the country. However, it’s a long road ahead

Sneha M
Visiting NIAS Research Scholar and a Postgraduate Scholar at CHRIST (Deemed to be University)

On 26 November, a remarkable report titled “Regulatory Repressions Amid Pandemic: State of Digital Media Freedoms in Pakistan 2021” highlighted the increasingly atrocious and repressive environment of press freedom. The report was prepared and published by the Institute for Research, Advocacy, and Development, which concluded that digital media freedom was poor. Additionally, the report called for immediate implementation of strategies to safeguard a “progressive and safe environment for digital media in the country.”

Overview of the report
According to the report, Pakistan's media freedom has declined to 25 points out of 100 in 2021, down from 26 points in 2020. The reasons for shrinking digital independence include the federal government's move to impose contentious and stringent rules to regulate digital content. Also, the information ministry's proposal to create a highly centralized media regulatory body that would conduct licensing, registration, and content regulation of all types of media, including digital and social media, has jeopardized digital media freedoms. 

Furthermore, many Pakistani journalists have been a victim of blatant abuse, harassment and organized online campaigns to smear and defame their findings. Likewise, female correspondents were found to self-censor their work due to the "weaponization" of social media against them. The historical restraints on journalists to self-censor were due to religion, the security establishment, which have now been surpassed by a burgeoning culture of political intolerance directed towards journalists, especially women on the Internet.

Three major takeaways
Firstly, the declining press freedom. According to the Freedom House Report 2021, the government of Pakistan has brought forth new regulations citing surveillance. In November 2020, Pakistan proposed "the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules, proposed by Pakistan, describe conditions for social media corporations to set up one or more data centers in the nation." Consequently, this legislation will have a downward impact on social media companies and the users too. On 7 May 2021, the government initiated "Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) to amalgamate several federal and provincial agencies regulating print, electronic, and digital media. Following a heavy backlash, the government denied that such legislation or a copy was even circulated. Nevertheless, even in the absence of such a bill, many journalists are frequently threatened, abducted, and tortured. 

The media watchdog Freedom Network named, Islamabad the "most unsafe" place to undertake journalism in its World Press Freedom Day 2021 report. According to the report, Islamabad was responsible for 34 per cent of the breaches, including legal lawsuits, threats, and detentions. For instance, Asad Ali Toor, a TV reporter, was assaulted by unidentified men who entered his apartment even under his protest. A month earlier to this incident, Absar Alam, a television journalist, was shot dead outside his residence. He was, reportedly, a prominent critic of the government. In view of closing the case, the state authorities charged Alam with sedition and "high treason" for using "derogatory language" about the government. Such attacks are never-ending, given the government's intentions to curb press freedom across the country.

Secondly, dwindling digital rights. In 2020, Pakistan's media legal context was characterized by an assertive government attempting to expand and broaden its authority to overregulate the media sector and redefine the boundaries of free speech for media and opposition political parties and civil society movements and their leaders. Adding to that, Increased censorship of political, social, and cultural websites by the authorities and an unofficial strategy of connectivity restrictions increased disinformation. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) law was used more frequently to foster censorship. Journalists and opinion makers have been charged with cybercrime to exercise their right to free speech and participate in social media activism.

Finally, the pro-activeness of judiciary. The year 2021 experienced judicial activism against disguised surveillance and violation of privacy through upholding freedom of expression in online and offline arenas. In a landmark case, Rana Muhammad Arshad versus Federation of Pakistan, the Islamabad High Court upheld that the former, a journalist whose occupation is to report and inform the citizens regarding matters of public importance, must be subjected to the right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19) and article 19 A provides "freedom of the press." Also, the court advised "the federal government to adopt legislation similar to 'Protection of Journalists Act 2014'.

In another historical case, Shahid Akbar Abbasi Advocate versus the Chief Commissioner Islamabad, the Islamabad High Court ruled that "free speech is not limited to speaking but also includes listening to and respecting the viewpoints of others." Repression of free expression resulted in regressive cultures, which encouraged extremism and weakened the rule of law. The free press served as a watchdog, and anything that hampered its ability to spread information and hold the government and its institution's accountable deprived people of their rights." Therefore, in situations where the governments have failed to preserve the fundamental rights of their citizens, the judiciary has been the sole liberator.

In conclusion, the report is significant because it underlines the grave challenges to digital media freedom and advocates for a progressive, safe, and enabling digital environment for users.

References
Muhammad Aftab Alam, “Regulatory Repressions Amid Pandemic: State of Digital Media Freedoms in Pakistan 2021,” Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development
Ikram Junaidi, “Media continues to face attacks, curbs on free expression,” Dawn, 1 November 2021
Curbing digital space,” Dawn, 30 October 2021
Ikram Junaidi, “Digital media freedom in Pakistan remains weak: report,” Dawn, 29 October 2021
Tenzin Zompa, “All you need to know about Pakistan’s media bill that Amnesty, other are wary of,” The Print, 20 September 2021

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