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Is Pakistan Drifting Down An Orwellian Path?

FILE: Journalists and civil society leaders protest the harassment of journalists working for Dawn, a leading English language daily in December.
FILE: Journalists and civil society leaders protest the harassment of journalists working for Dawn, a leading English language daily in December.

This week, former Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi advised the country’s current cabinet to read British author George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

“Today, Animal Farm represents the reality of this country and its government,” he told lawmakers on February 12. “It is a thin book, and I am willing to donate 200 free copies,” he said of the 1945 dystopian novel about the Soviet Union’s early years.

Abbasi is prominent among the country’s politicians and activists imprisoned or facing court cases for alleged corruption, sedition, terrorism, and rioting charges. While their individual cases differ, they claim to be punished for criticizing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration and the powerful army generals whom opposition leaders allege propelled his Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party into power by rigging parliamentary elections in 2018.

During the past couple years, Pakistani journalists and media houses have faced mounting censorship. According to global press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), “pressure and harassment” forced journalists to censor themselves in the traditional media. Many turned to the Internet as the last remaining free space.

But authorities now appear keen on controlling and censoring all online content. Last month, RSF joined Pakistani press freedom activists in calling on the country’s lawmakers to reject a "draconian" proposal for regulating online streaming services and web TV because it showed the "authoritarian" intent bent on "relentlessly" censoring content.

The Pakistani cabinet has now okayed a new authority and legal framework to regulate all social media platforms in the country. The new instructions will require Facebook, Google, Twitter, Tiktok, and other social media giants to provide user data or disclose any information to the authorities.

In what appears to be a globally unprecedented effort to regulate social media, the proposed law, formally called Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, requires social media companies to provide authorities with the identities of anyone accused of uploading “blasphemous” content or that declared against the “national interest” or state institutions.

The rules require companies to “suspend or disable access to such accounts, online content of citizens of Pakistan residing outside its territorial boundaries, and posts on online content that are involved in spreading fake news or defamation and violates or affects the religious cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitives of Pakistan,” according to a version of the rules circulating over the Internet.

Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqi, a top official at the ministry of information, says the new rules would help identify and weed out "unwanted and slanderous" online content. "We needed to do it to uphold the integrity, decency and respect of individuals and sanctity of institutions," he said.

The draft law requires social media giants to establish offices in Islamabad within three months while also setting up database servers in the country within a year. They will have to commit to removing any “unlawful content” highlighted by the authorities within 24 hours or even with six hours if the authorities declare it an “emergency” case.

The regulations come as Khan’s administration faces mounting criticism over rising inflation and a crackdown on dissenting voices. On February 12, the government approved a $64.8 million package to ease the "soaring prices" of food items such as sugar and wheat flour.

“These new ‘rule against online harm’ is a direct attack on freedom of press and expression. It doesn’t protect the citizens it harms and restricts them,” journalist Annie Zaman, a press freedom researcher, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It is a political move to silence voices of dissent.”

Zaman says the new rules do not match the global digital environment, which favors transparency and has resisted efforts to manipulate or access user data and impose censorship in the name of national security or local sensitivities.

“It would further isolate Pakistan and its citizens globally,” she noted. “It would also create hindrance to build a digital economy which this government has stressed upon.”

On February 12, Khan unveiled a new government program to facilitate the startups by building a network of National Incubation Centers in Islamabad and four provincial capitals. The initiative is part of his administration’s vision to encourage accelerated digitization toward a knowledge-based economy. “People become successful only after getting through testing times … those who dare to burn bridges and learn from past experiences come out dominating the world,” he told the inauguration ceremony.

Islamabad, however, has had some success in restricting or banning social media websites. In September 2012, Pakistan banned access to the global video-sharing website YouTube. The ban was lifted in January 2016 after the Google-owned website launched a local version that allowed local authorities to demand a removal of material.

Freedom House, a U.S. media watchdog, listed Pakistan as “not free” in its 2019 report on Internet freedoms because of “authorities’ increased blocking of political, social, and cultural websites.” The country fared poorly in terms of obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. Freedom House saw the relatively free access to social media as a silver lining in Pakistan’s Internet freedom record.

Many Pakistanis are now worried that the government’s muzzling of social media will push them toward unprecedented authoritarianism.

“Pakistan is being thrown behind the iron curtain of one of the most draconian social media censorships of modern times,” journalist Talat Hussain tweeted. “A new authority and legal framework put in place will choke and shut down posts on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter reducing the country to a Burma or Third Reich.”

Such criticism, likely resistance from Pakistan’s civil society, politicians, and an already large and growing social media user base might prompt authorities to scrap the effort. Reluctance from social media companies, international and domestic legal challenges, and the logistics of implementing the new regulations will also pose a hindrance.