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Pakistan Sees Surge in Silencing of Mainstream and Social Media

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The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan Sees Surge in Silencing of Mainstream and Social Media

Attempts to reign in the media have grown since 2018, when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf came to power.

Pakistan Sees Surge in Silencing of Mainstream and Social Media

A journalist shouts slogans during a demonstration to denounce rampant censorship and massive layoffs in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 16, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/ Anjum Naveed

Pakistani authorities sent a record 417 content removal requests to Twitter in the second half of 2020 – almost double that in the previous reporting period – the social media site said, as the country is set to roll out strict new rules for tech firms.

In its latest transparency report, Twitter said legal demands made by the Pakistani government to remove or withhold content shot up 73 percent compared to the first six months of 2020. Between January and June of 2020, the company received 241 legal demands for removal of content from Pakistan.

Legal demands include a combination of court orders and other formal demands to remove content, from both governmental entities and lawyers representing individuals. Three demands were made through court orders, and Twitter said it complied with 41 percent of the total demands.

In these legal demands, 6,518 accounts were specified, but Twitter did not withhold any tweet or delete the accounts. The company added that it removed some content and/or accounts based on 724 legal demands for violating Twitter’s TOS (made up of both Twitter’s Terms of Service and the Twitter Rules).

Journalists also came under increasing pressure by governments to take down content. Worldwide, 199 verified journalists and news outlets were subjected to 361 legal demands to remove content. Twitter said that 52 of those requests came from Pakistan alone.

Usama Khilji, a director at Bolo Bhi, a digital rights advocacy group in Pakistan, said the surge in content removal requests signifies increased government scrutiny of online speech, and shows a disturbing trend.

The government’s reporting of tweets by journalists and news organizations to Twitter “undermines press freedom and freedom of speech as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Pakistani Constitution, and the right to information guaranteed by Article 19-A of the Constitution,” Khilji told The Diplomat. “This is a worrying trend in line with increasing censorship by the Pakistani state.”

Jan Rydzak, company engagement manager at Ranking Digital Rights, which promotes freedom of expression and privacy on the internet, said that such reporting by the government “chills free expression” and creates “collateral censorship” because the range of targets tends to get ever broader.

“The surge in demands targeting journalists in Pakistan and elsewhere is emblematic of this,” he said.

The type of content reported or removed was not specified, but under different sections of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), uploading content that is against the higher judiciary and the glory of Islam (including blasphemous, sacrilegious, or sectarian content) is unlawful. Posting and sharing content that is indecent and immoral, promotes hate speech, and is against the integrity, security, and defense of Pakistan is also prohibited.

These subjective, vague, and broadly defined terms are often used to stifle freedom of speech and expression in Pakistan.

On July 20, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked access to Chinese video-sharing app TikTok for the fourth time in less than a year “due to continuous presence of inappropriate content on the platform and its failure to take such content down.”

The app owned by ByteDance, however, says it continues to work with regulators to serve its millions of users and creators in Pakistan. It removed 61.95 million videos globally for violating its terms, including nearly 6.5 million from Pakistan, during the first three months of the year.

Last September, the PTA blocked access to five dating and live streaming applications — Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr, and SayHi — for not removing dating services and moderating live streaming content in accordance with local laws of Pakistan.

Since coming to power in 2018, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government has time and again made attempts to reign in both mainstream (electronic and print) and social media.

Recently, it floated the idea of the Pakistan Media Development Authority, a super-regulator to centralize government oversight of the media, fueling concerns about further deterioration of press freedom. The move was deferred due to unanimous opposition from all stakeholders including media owners and representative bodies as well as the opposition.

In the annual World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders (RSF), Pakistan’s ranking has dropped from 139th in 2018 when Prime Minister Imran Khan took office to 145th in 2021.

Besides censorship, journalists continue to be harassed, prosecuted, trolled online, abducted, and even attacked. In May, journalist Asad Toor was beaten and tortured by three men said to have identified themselves as spooks inside his apartment in the capital Islamabad – the most dangerous place for journalists in Pakistan, according to a recent report by Freedom Network, a local media watchdog.

Hamid Mir, host of one of Pakistan’s most-watched current affairs shows, was taken off-air and sent on forced leave for a speech that demanded accountability for repeated assaults on journalists in the country.

Over 8,000 journalists and associated media workers have lost their jobs and over a dozen outlets have been shut since late 2018, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. This is mainly because of a cut by over half in public sector advertising for the media sector.

Last year, the government notified the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020. However, after national and international outcry, it assured a revision of rules only after consultations.

The IT Ministry ended the consultation process on July 5, but digital rights activists as well as stakeholders including the Asia Internet Coalition, a representative body of technology companies, have expressed reservations over the proposed rules.

Khilji called the consultation an “eye-wash.” He pointed out that in the four rounds of discussions held by the government, “no significant changes have been made [in the draft] despite heavy engagement and feedback from stakeholders at each step.”

Khan figures in the RSF’s list of rulers who crackdown on press freedom. The RSF report pointed out that cyberspace is being subjected to “increasingly draconian censorship measures” by his government. Pakistan’s Information Ministry rejected the report.

Pakistani officials have argued that the coming of the digital media era (and with it misinformation and fake news) has made new forms of regulation necessary. However, there is often a thin line between censorship and regulation. The question then is: how should the authorities react?

For Rydzak, governments should mandate corporate transparency, especially on the incentives that grease the wheels of disinformation: advertising and engagement-driven algorithms.