Published on 14 October under the pompous name of “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021,” the new regulations give the authorities the right to control and censor any type of message posted on social media platforms.
They refer to the guarantees for freedom of expression in article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution, but at the same time they also affirm the need to ban any “violation” of this freedom concerning such matters as the “Glory of Islam,” the “security of Pakistan,” “criticism of the armed forces” and Pakistan’s “relationships with friendly countries.”
These vague concepts provide the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the federal government-controlled regulator, with a blank check to censor any content that is not to the authorities’ liking.
Need for transparency and responsibility
In the event of a dispute, the PTA has the right to unilaterally decide to block an entire online information system such as Facebook and Twitter and fine it up to 500 million rupees (2.5 million euros).
Worse still, the regulations give the federal and provincial governments and, in particular, Pakistan’s various intelligence agencies, the power to ask the PTA to have content removed or accounts blocked. And when this happens, the identity of the authority or agency requesting the censorship remains a secret.
“It is perfectly understandable for a government to try to regulate online platform content in order, for example, to prevent hate speech or calls for violence, but this type of regulation must be done in a transparent and responsible manner,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“In their current form, the regulations proposed by the Pakistani government include every possible legal pitfall including extremely vague definitions, the provision of absolute powers to the government and a lack of legal recourse for those targeted. We call on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to amend these regulations without delay so as to incorporate strong safeguards for the freedom to provide news and information.”
Centralised censorship system
RSF has launched an international “information and democracy” initiative to help regulate the online information chaos, which should not be left to governments or the platforms themselves. It consists of a forum for debate, for exchanging information and opinions, and for involving digital experts, stakeholders and political institutions in providing safeguards for freedom of opinion and expression in the global online information and communication domain.
Just a few months ago, the Pakistani government already tried to impose a centralised censorship system on Pakistan’s entire online domain, which is regarded as the only remaining space for free speech and independent journalism in Pakistan.
Pakistan is currently ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.