Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2020
KARACHI: The government has finalised a framework to closely monitor both mainstream and social media for Covid-19 disinformation and directed media regulatory bodies to take strict action against individuals propagating ‘fake news’.
Last week, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) had formed a committee under the chairmanship of Interior Minister retired Brig Ijaz Shah to prepare a legal framework to counter the spread of false information about the pandemic.
The Shah-led committee on ‘Covid-19 disinformation prevention’ held its first meeting on Thursday at the interior ministry.
Besides the interior minister, the committee includes PM’s focal person on Covid-19 Dr Faisal Sultan and focal person on digital media Dr Arslan Khalid as “senior members”.
It also comprises representatives of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) cybercrime cell, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s (PTA) cyber-vigilance and web analysis departments, and the NCOC’s analysis group, as well as officials from the health and information ministries.
“We will take strict action against the spread of disinformation regarding Covid-19,” Interior Minister Shah said during the meeting, according to a press release.
The interior minister directed the FIA’s cyberwing director to closely monitor media and hold the people spreading disinformation accountable for their actions. He reiterated that strict and immediate action should be taken against these people.
‘No fake news to be flashed’
During the meeting, the minister also deliberated upon the role of media in controlling the spread of the pandemic. He directed Pemra’s director general to ensure that “no fake news was flashed on electronic media”.
The minister, according to the press release, further said that people who were involved in such actions were not “pro-country”.
“The primary purpose of this committee is to ensure that correct and credible information goes to our people,” Mr Shah said, adding that he would fully utilise the available resources to find people behind the spread of Covid-19 disinformation.
Mr Shah urged every institution and individual to play their role in countering false information related to the pandemic. “We should all collectively work together to counter this menace of pandemic,” he said.
How will the committee flag false content?
According to PM’s focal person on digital media Dr Arslan Khalid — who is also part of the committee — the interior minister will brief the NCOC every week on steps taken by the body to prevent the spread of Covid-19 disinformation.
Discussing the role of each member, Dr Khalid told Dawn that the focal person will be responsible for flagging false content online and on TV with assistance from ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) and the interior ministry.
The content flagged will be then reported to the health ministry, where health experts would decide whether it qualifies as disinformation based on expert opinion.
If the health experts find that the content identified has the potential to create a “sense of fear, panic or insecurity in the government or the public” as stated in the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (Peca), those responsible will be approached by PTA or Pemra.
“If the person responsible does not listen to PTA and remove the content, then the ministry of health can approach FIA with a written order under Section 10a of the cybercrime law for spreading panic,” the PM’s focal person told Dawn.
Role of platforms
Social media platforms, such as Facebook, are already working with the Pakistan government to limit Covid-19 disinformation.
Earlier in April, Facebook had said that content which went against the World Health Organisation’s recommendations and contravened the guidelines issued by the federal and provincial governments would be removed from Facebook’s platforms for violation of its policy.
Facebook said it had established a dedicated channel for the federal and provincial governments so they could share listings which they believed violated local laws.
Two months into the Covid-19 outbreak in April, the PTA had reported 42 items related to Covid-19 to Facebook.