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Pakistan Plans to Regulate Social Media Through Legislation

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Pakistan Plans to Regulate Social Media Through Legislation

There are concerns that the authorities will misuse the proposed legislation to deal with critics and opponents.

Pakistan Plans to Regulate Social Media Through Legislation
Credit: Depositphotos

The Pakistani government is planning to introduce legislation aimed at safeguarding digital rights and curbing fake news.

The legislation reportedly stipulates that sharing private information without consent, causing a mockery of people, and spreading false information could result in harsh penalties. Additionally, the bill could lead to severe punishments and imprisonment for spreading false information against the judiciary, military, and government officials, among other key state institutions, including constitutional figures and positions.

Amid a rapid increase in the use of social media, the government sees the spread of disinformation in a deeply divided country as a problem that needs to be addressed. However, there are concerns that the proposed law will be used for political gains.

The issue of unrestrained social media use has long plagued Pakistan. The country has attempted to shut down the internet in the past to combat the problem, and in other instances, blocked sites like X, formerly Twitter, to limit people’s access.

In the absence of legislation, these actions by the government have been criticized for limiting free speech and information access. However, the Ministry of Interior recently defended its actions in a court saying that these restrictions were put in place in the “interest of upholding national security, maintaining public order, and preserving the integrity of our nation.”

The use of social media platforms has become a key tool for political parties in Pakistan to reach out to the country’s large and mostly young population, often at the expense of truth and accuracy.

With over 111 million internet users and 64.6 percent of the total internet user base using social media, the government faces a monumental challenge in regulating this space and exercising its writ.

Fake news online in Pakistan is largely centered around politics, the economy, military issues, gender, culture, and religion, according to a report by Accountabilitylab. In Pakistan, people tend to believe fake news because of the country’s increasingly polarized culture and low level of media literacy among other reasons.

A simple screenshot circulating claiming that the prime minister will resign due to differences with the military, for example, could go viral and receive millions of shares, affecting the financial markets and political stability.

Recently, a social media user who threatened to campaign against Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa was taken into custody by law enforcement agencies. Subsequently, the chief justice’s security had to be increased by the authorities. Following the incident, Isa remarked that “the more you lie, the more it sells on social media.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a government official told The Diplomat that freedom of speech does not equate to an unregulated environment as there is a system of checks and balances in force.

Nevertheless, there are concerns that the law may be misused by the authorities. In an attempt to allay fears, the government has declared that it will only enact the law to regulate social media through consensus. Minister of Law Azam Nazeer Tarar has announced the creation of a special committee to promote political consensus on the proposal and said that “all journalist organizations and press clubs will be taken into confidence on the matter.”

The Punjab province passed the Defamation Bill, 2024, earlier this month to provide “protection from false, misleading and defamatory claims via print, electronic and social media against public officials and private citizens.” While the law’s opponents claim that its real goal is to suppress free speech and marginalize opposing viewpoints, the government in the province feels the heat of the impending challenge it faces from online spaces is hindering its ability to function effectively.

The conversation concerning the use and misuse of social media in Pakistan is just getting started. Pakistan appears to still be far from the real bombshell of the fake news challenge as the country’s internet penetration rate stood at 45.7 percent of the total population of 242.8 million at the beginning of 2024. When internet penetration reaches 70 percent, mainly among the younger population, what would this challenge look like?

The exponential growth in the size of Pakistan’s population will make it extremely difficult for the state to effectively control this space and ensure that its operations are balanced and conducted in a transparent manner.