Pressing ahead with its brazen attempts to bring the Internet to heel, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government adopted the new rules – called the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 – in a secret memo dated 28 January.
According to these rules, a copy of which was leaked last week, the “national coordinator” will be appointed by the ministry of information technology and telecommunication and, by way of “regulating” online social media, will be empowered to arbitrarily demand the removal or blocking of any content deemed to be “harmful,” and the deactivation of user data encryption.
“The vague and ambiguous wording used in these regulations testifies to the arbitrary nature of the measures planned by the government,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge the federal authorities to rescind these rules, which pose a major threat to journalists’ work and to respect for the confidentiality of their sources. Regulation of social media is necessary, but should not become a disguised form of censorship.”
The rules provide for other measures designed to step up government control over social media companies. They would have to open offices in Pakistan and could be fined up to 500 million rupees (3 million euros) for every failure to remove or block content within the stipulated deadline.
The national coordinator would also be able to require online platforms to surrender all information, private or public, about any user.
Last month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued what it called a “Consultation on Regulating the Web TV and Over the Top TV (OTT) Content Services.” In reality, it was designed to extend the government’s media censorship to online video content, but was rejected as unconstitutional on 10 February by the Senate Human Rights Committee, which said the PEMRA did not have the authority to do this.
Pakistan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.