The governments around the world are imposing new restrictions on the social media platforms. The main aim of these restrictions is to police the social media. The populist leaders around the world are imposing repressive laws and regulations to suppress the criticism and political dissent.
Regulation of the online space is on the rise globally– ranging from laws around data localisation, to the geo-blocking of platforms in the name of national security, to anti-fake news laws that campaigners say threaten free speech.
Reactionary legislation governing the operations of social media companies and the behaviour of their users has grown more prevalent in the last year – with relatively new cyber security laws in many countries in Asia particular disrupting the regulatory environment.
Global anxieties about the rise of “fake news” have provided governments in the region with grounds to enact regulatory changes that critics argue are draconian, increasing operational costs and presenting reputational challenges.
The PTI government in Pakistan is also following the global trend to suppress the freedom of expression and media. Even though- Prime Minister Imran Khan was a vocal supporter of media freedoms and free media before taking power. As an opposition leader- he slammed every attempt of PML-N government to control the media.
He even once said that the corrupt leaders and governments tried to impose restrictions on media freedom to hide their corruption. He opposed the cybercrimes bill 2016 which was passed by the PML-N government. This law was the first attempt to control the social media and to curb the social media freedoms. But now he seems to follow the footsteps of corrupt leaders he used to criticise.
In many interviews- Imran Khan accepted that both mainstream and social media played important role to convey his message and narrative in every house in Pakistan. He was used to appreciate the efforts of the mainstream media to expose the corruption- malpractices and irregularities of PML-N government. He was more than happy to see a vibrant and free media in Pakistan to take on the PPP and PML-N governments.
Since taking power in August 2018- his government has changed the old stance regarding the freedom of media and expression. His government is doing everything to control the mainstream media. Both the laws and government advertisement have been used to manipulate and control the print and electronic.
After taming the electronic and print media- now PTI government is on the mission to control the social media. The new law introduced by the federal government clearly curbs the social media freedom. Even though- the stated aim of this new law is to regulate the social media and to stop the spread of fake news but real motive behind this move is clearly to curb the dissent and criticism of the government. It’s not a good sign and will further weaken the democratic credentials of PTI government.
We know very well that PTI government is not happy with the social media. The mainstream media is already under pressure and facing censorship and restrictions under PTI government. PTI government has poor record as far as freedom of media and expression is concerned. The new law will make it more difficult to criticise the government and to bring out facts.
The new law will make it compulsory for social media giants like Facebook- You Tube –Tik Tok-Twitter and others to register with the new formed authority. They will have open offices in Pakistan within three months to continue their operations in the country.
The law requires the companies and platforms providing social media services to appoint a representative in Pakistan who will deal with a National Coordination Authority. The authority will be responsible for regulating social media companies.
It requires social media companies to make data servers in Pakistan within one year. The law makes it compulsory for social media companies to provide data of accounts found guilty of targeting state institutions, spreading fake news and hate speech, causing harassment, issuing statements that harm national security or uploading blasphemous content, to intelligence and law enforcement agencies (LEAs).
This law gives legal power to authorities to take action against Pakistanis found guilty of targeting state institutions within Pakistan and abroad on social media. The law will also help LEAs get access to data of certain accounts found involved in suspicious activities.
It will be the authority’s prerogative to identify objectionable content to the social media platforms for them to take down. In case the companies fail to act on directives within 15 days, the authority will have the power to suspend their services or impose a hefty fine of up to Rs 500 million.
The main purpose of this new law seems to be to control and regulate the digital media. The authorities already have greater control over mainstream media and especially over electronic media. The government now wants to control the digital media and social media platforms.
The new law will give more powers to authorities to access the data and accounts of Pakistani social media users. This law will further shrink the digital space for dissenting voices and political activists. It will further erode the freedom of expression and democratic rights.
This law is a blatant attempt to curb the free speech- freedom of expression and media. It is an attempt to control and manipulate the digital media.
Governments should engage in a range of law and policy measures to counter hate speech with more speech, seeking to maximise inclusivity, diversity and pluralism in public discourse. That means clearly defining the circumstances in which certain types of hate speech can or must be limited, and ensuring those measures are only used exceptionally, and as a last resort.
Hate speech covers many forms of expressions which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred, violence and discrimination against a person or community on the basis of religion, race, nationality, ethnicity and gender. If left unaddressed, it can lead to violence and conflict on a wider scale. In this sense, hate speech is an extreme form of intolerance which contributes to hate crime.
But this free speech and freedom of expression is under attack throughout the world. Governments around the world, whether democratic or authoritarian, have been imposing direct and indirect restrictions on free speech and freedom of expression. Governments are intervening directly to criminalise dissent through regulations and new laws.
Indirect censorship has been imposed through the social media giants – Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube. Governments have been putting pressure on these social media giants to censor content on grounds of national security. Both governments and the board of directors of these corporations now decide what is good or harmful for us.
Social media has been under tight scrutiny since the Arab uprisings commonly known as the Arab Spring. The Arab masses had at the time expressed themselves through social media because of tight government control and censorship over the print and electronic media. Social media did help Arab activists in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and other countries to organise protests and spread their message across the world.
During the recent mass protest movements in India- Iraq- Chile- Sudan-Lebanon and Iran –the governments immediately blocked the access of social media and internet to curb protests. But this tactics has failed to stop the street protests.
It took governments little time to realise the potential power of social media to challenge state-imposed ideologies and narratives. So they started to impose censorship and regulations to control it. Governments are also using the same social media platforms and tools to intimidate, monitor and identify those activists that pose a challenge to them.
The PTI government seems to want to impose more regulations and censorship on social media. There is no doubt that Pakistan needs measures to address the menace of hate speech. But any restrictions on hate speech should not be misused to silence critical voices and suppress criticism of government policies.
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28 March, 2020