August 13, 2020

Govt begins consultation on online harm rules

Originally published in Dawn on July 3, 2020

KARACHI: While human rights groups continue boycott of talks with the government on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, authorities have formally initiated the consultation process.

In an invitation letter dated May 20, sent to Dawn, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said on the directives of Prime Minister Imran Khan to “undertake open and broad-based consultation, the implementation of the Rules has been suspended and a consultation/review process has been initiated”.

A consultation meeting with media and digital rights groups is scheduled for Thursday (June 4).

After cabinet approval of the rules had attracted sharp opposition from various quarters including the companies that manage different social media platforms in February, the prime minister had announced consultation with stakeholders.

The PTA chairman-led committee comprises additional secretary of IT Eazaz Aslam Dar, Digital Pakistan head Tania Aidrus and focal person on digital media Dr Arslan Khalid. Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari and Barrister Ali Zafar are also involved in the process.

Earlier in May, the PTA uploaded a survey questionnaire on its website to seek input from the public and relevant stakeholders for “refining the suspended Rules”.

The questionnaire seeks input based on 10 leading questions, with an option to answer “Yes” or “No”. Each answer contains a text-box that will allow users to leave comments, if desired.

The objectives outlined in the survey include facilitation of the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) in fulfilling its statutory role of removal of harmful online content under Sections 37 of Pakistan Electronic Crime Act, 2016. The aim is to “protect citizens and state from ‘Online Harmful Content’ without compromising on the freedom of expression and fundamental rights granted under the Article 19 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, it adds.

“The process is open to everyone for comments and inputs. The committee is also engaged with human rights forums to seek their viewpoint,” the PTA told Dawn.

Rights groups refuse to engage

However, human rights groups have refused to participate in the review process.

Earlier in March, over 100 rights organisations and individuals had announced a boycott of talks with the government on the existing rules, unless they were revoked.

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) had also called on the government to pull back the rules and engage in a broad, transparent consultation with legislators, civil society, social media companies and other relevant stakeholders.

With the consultation starting this week, rights groups regret that the consultative process ignores the key demand of civil society, which is the formal denotification of the rules.

“We believe that the rules approved by the cabinet are in conflict with the constitution of Pakistan and are illegal. Until these rules are completely withdrawn, any consultation on these rules will be illegal and will not result any useful outcome,” said Shahzad Ahmad, country director of Bytes for All.

In addition, the matter was sub juice as there were petitions challenging the policy pending in the Islamabad High Court, he said.

The IHC bench, in its last hearing in February, had sought a reply from the federal government, and law and IT ministries and clubbed the pleas with a case on media regulation.

“We now rest our hopes on the courts to provide relief and ensure the protection of our fundamental freedoms online and offline,” he said after the organisation received an invite to participate in the consultation.

In an open letter to the PTA chairman and consultation committee, the Media Matters for Democracy said they were “severely disappointed in the manner this consultative process has been devised”.

“Without formal denotification, any consultation to simply amend the rules would be akin to endorsement of a process that was inherently undemocratic, legally questionable, and challenged the supremacy of the Parliament,” the letter said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a tweet on Monday said “withdraw the rules, then consult”.

“The entire process is disingenuous. After cabinet approval, rules essentially are in effect. The PM cannot overrule cabinet nor delegate authority he does not have to the PTA. No one should lend this process legitimacy. Rules should be withdrawn not discussed,” said Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi.

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