To counter fake news and anti-state propaganda, the federal government in Pakistan has approved a new set of rules, imposing strict conditions on digital media companies. The document containing new rules does not require the parliament’s approval. Media persons and political commentators believe the move is an attempt to curb freedom of expression in the country. The government, on the other hand, maintains that approved rules help law enforcement agencies to have counter fake news and anti-Pakistan propaganda chiefly sponsored by India.
According to the document titled “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020”, social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, will have to register with the government within three months of the coming into force of the new rules.
Govt to Implement New Rules to Control Digital Media in Pakistan https://t.co/yu1C2LRjsZ
— ProPakistani (@ProPakistaniPK) February 12, 2020
They will be required to establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan with a physical address located in Islamabad within the same period.
Digital media companies will have to appoint in Pakistan, a focal person based in Pakistan for coordination with the National Coordinator and the concerned authority within three months of the date of coming into force of these rules.
They will have to establish one or more database servers in Pakistan within 12 months to record and store data and online content, within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan for citizen data privacy.
The companies will be required to remove, suspend or disable access to such account, online content of citizens of Pakistan residing outside its territorial boundaries and posts on online content that are involved in spreading of fake news or defamation and violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan.
Moreover, if communicated by the authority that certain online content is false, the companies will be required to put a note to that effect along with the online content.
— MALIK. (@masimmalikawan) February 12, 2020
The social media company shall provide to the investigation agency designated or established under Section 29 of the act, any information or data or content or sub-content contained in any information system owned or managed or run by the respective social media company, in decrypted, readable and comprehensible format or plain version in accordance with the provision of the aforesaid act.
Authorities would be empowered to take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions at home and abroad on social media. The law would also help the law enforcement authorities obtain access to data of accounts found involved in suspicious activities.
Who is behind the proposed Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority to control the print, electronic and digital media through one regulatory body? When it first came up last year the then Info Minister was surprised and took to task some officials. Invisible hands at work?
— Farhatullah Babar (@FarhatullahB) November 1, 2018
It would be the said authority’s prerogative to identify objectionable content to the social media platforms to be taken down. In case of failure to comply within 15 days, it would have the power to suspend their services or impose a fine worth up to Rs500 million.
The legislation, in addition, defines terms such as social media, social media company, law enforcement, and the law in this context. Matters highlighted by the authorities may be taken up in high courts in all four provinces.
Read more: Internet Freedom – A Feel Good Report
The document further highlighted that in case a social media company fails to abide by the provision of these rules, the national coordinator may issue instructions for blocking the online system, social media application or services or OTTA owned or managed or run by the said social media company.
— The Current (@TheCurrentPK) February 12, 2020
Journalists and opinion-makers in Pakistan face several challenges. The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) recently revealed it in its Pakistan Media Freedom Report 2019 issued. It has compilation of cases, number of victims and sequence of events made mockery of freedom of media and freedom of speech in the country.
Reports also contained recommendations by Arif Nizami, the President, CPNE. The report says that despite the fact that there is a specific law on defamation, but the government and other actors used Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, PECA and Pakistan Penal Codes criminalisation sections against media practitioners in Pakistan.
At least 60 journalists were booked under Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, in 35 cases which included 50 journalists from Sindh province alone.
According to available data, at least seven journalists reportedly were murdered during the year 2019 while reports suggest at least 15 journalists were injured during attacks in the line of duty. The mysterious and unidentified actors unknown constituted the biggest threat to press freedom as it was in the previous year as well. The second biggest threats to the lives of journalists were non-state actors outlawed terrorist and militant groups who continued their attacks on journalists and media in previous year too report mentioned.
The latest decision of the federal cabinet to create a government-led system of control and regulation seems to be a new attack on the freedom of speech in Pakistan. This is yet to be seen that how does the media and political commentators react to this latest move by the government?