According to a press statement released by the Freedom Network group on Wednesday, online space for freedom of expression in Pakistan has shrunk, while hate speech and digital surveillance have witnessed a concerning rise.
Entitled Closing Spaces: Coercive Cyber Regulations Impede Online Journalism and Free Speech in Pakistan, the rights research group’s annual report found that Pakistan faced “several setbacks” in 2020 in terms of freedom of expression online and the right to online information. If anything, the report noted, there had been a “regression” in cyber policies in Pakistan that allowed for the spread of hate speech, misinformation, and online censorship and surveillance.
The country, in fact, scored a deplorable 38 out of 100 in the global internet freedom rankings released by the Freedom House. The figure paints a very gloomy picture of the hostile nature of online spaces in Pakistan.
So, what are we doing wrong? The report went on to highlight an “increased reliance” on Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act to “encourage censorship”. It also held the “aggressive federal government” policies at fault for taking steps to “extend and expand its authority to overregulate the media sector and to redefine the boundaries of free speech.” In other words, whether by accident or design, the government pretty much controls the kind of content we consume, and how we react to it.
The report highlighted PTA’s demand to register VPNs as an example of the organization’s attack on online freedom of the masses, saying that the authority “used its unchecked powers” and “unleashed another controversy” in the process.
“Internet freedom declined during 2020 due to authorities’ increased blocking of political, social, and cultural websites and undeclared policy of connectivity restrictions and increased disinformation,” Freedom Network said in its press statement. “Several journalists and rights activists faced inquiries, abductions, investigations, arrests and criminal related to their online/social media activities and posts.”
Moreover, several female journalists have reported feeling vulnerable and unsafe in online spaces due to bullying and threats carried out by various groups, including supporters and members of the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf.
As Freedom Network Executive Director Iqbal Khattak notes, the “slide in enforcement of digital rights” is a disappointing aspect of our culture of intolerance and how it has resulted in the closure of online spaces.