Internet freedom declined in Pakistan in 2020, says a repot by IRADA

ISLAMABAD: Internet freedom in Pakistan declined dramatically in 2020 due to increased blocking of political, social and cultural websites by the government, beefed-up operationalisation of an undeclared policy of connectivity restrictions and increased disinformation and weaponisation of the cybercrime law as a tool.

This is the crux of the findings of the “Annual Pakistan media legal review 2020” report launched by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

“The accumulative effect of these outcomes was that the already unfriendly legal framework governing freedom of expression, right to information and digital rights in Pakistan worsened considerably during 2020,” according to the report titled “Growing fear and hate in Pakistani online civic spaces.” The report has been dedicated to the late I. A. Rehman.

The report said Pakistan was experiencing major setbacks in enforcement of digital rights, freedom of expression and right to information – especially in online spaces – through regression in the areas of internet policies and regulations.

“This is resulting in a rise in censorship, hate speech, digital surveillance and breach of privacy and disinformation and misinformation online,” the report added.

The media legal context of Pakistan in 2020 was characterised by an aggressive government seeking to extend and expand its authority to over-regulate the media sector and to redefine the boundaries of free speech not just of media and information practitioners, including journalists and online citizens, but also of opposition political parties and civil society movements and their leaders.

Nevertheless, the report added, the government accelerated its efforts to beef up internet controls with the intended consequence of expanding its policy of reduced tolerance for dissent.

The report noted that the cybercrime law was repeatedly invoked against journalists and opinion makers for exercising freedom of expression and social media activism. A large number of journalists and social media activists became targets of the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016. Several journalists and rights activists faced inquiries, abductions, investigations and arrests related to their online/social media activities and posts.

As per the report, “13 incidents of actions under Peca against journalists or human rights activists have been reported during the year.”

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) either has initiated inquires or issued notices to journalists and online information practitioners or cases were registered against them under the cybercrime law. At least two of them were arrested as well for their allegedly unlawful online activities.

The report also noted that 2020 saw the re-emergence with a vengeance of banning social media applications and platforms. Several social media applications were also banned.

“Freedom of expression is a guaranteed fundamental right in the shape of Article 19 of the Constitution,” Mr Alam said, adding, “the government needs to roll back its increasingly coercive policy and hostile practices aimed at curbing free speech and bring them in alignment with the best practices of diversity and pluralism in expression and allow online spaces to be representative of the people’s opinions and interests.”

Originally published in Dawn, April 28th, 2021

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