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Pakistani Cabinet Passes Controversial Social-Media Rules

Pakistan's government has approved new rules for regulating social-media content that critics say would give the authorities unflinching powers to stifle dissent and free speech.

The regulations were approved by the federal cabinet in late January without public consultation, and were reported by the media on February 13.

The text stipulates that social-media companies are made responsible for preventing the live streaming of any content "related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence, and national security."

The move comes amid accusations that Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has sought to censor the media, and intimidate and silence its opponents. The army has also been accused of cracking down on media and free speech. The cabinet and the army have rejected the allegations.

Under the new regulations, social-media companies will have three months to register with Pakistani authorities and must have a representative office in the country to answer complaints filed by the National Coordinator.

The companies will have 24 hours to respond to a request by the regulator to remove material deemed unlawful, and to provide decrypted content and "any other information" about users on demand.

Companies not complying with the regulations could be blocked online and fined up to 500 million rupees ($3.24 million).

Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqi of the Ministry of Information Technology, which authored the new regulations, said the measures were needed to "uphold the integrity, decency, and respect of individuals and sanctity of institutions."

Siddiqi insisted that the government would not take any steps against the interests of social-media users.

But the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) vowed to challenge the rules in parliament and the courts, with PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, chair of the Senate Human Rights Committee, saying the measures were seen "as an attempt to further restrict space of free discourse in Pakistan.

Media Matters for Democracy, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization promoting press freedom, called the rules a "direct threat to Pakistan's digital economy and the citizens' rights to freedom of expression and privacy."

Pakistan's not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation described the new measures as a "blatant violation" of free-speech provisions in Pakistan's constitution.

The Committee to Protect Journalists urged the Pakistani government to "immediately reverse course and seek broad consultations with legislators and civil society, including the media, on how to proceed with any such regulations."

"These stringent but vague rules...threaten the ability of journalists to report the news and communicate with their sources," said Steven Butler, the New York-based watchdog's Asia program coordinator.

With reporting by Reuters

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