Disappearing freedom?

Editorial by: The News

It is not a surprise to learn that Pakistan is ranked poorly on how much freedom is allowed on the internet. For the sixth year straight, Pakistan has received the woeful rank of its citizens being ‘not free’ on the internet freedom index. The assessment is damning for the new Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 that was passed last year amid much criticism that it would be used to clamp down on legitimate freedoms, instead of focusing on legitimate crimes. Freedom House has released the ranking in its Freedom on the Net report this week in collaboration with the Digital Rights Foundation. The concerns range from freedom of speech on social media but extend to the absence of cellular services in areas under military operations. The Fata region did not have access to mobile internet services for a full year. Cases related to alleged blasphemy have continued to be prosecuted, and hackers have continued to target those who criticise the state and government while some media websites have also come under attack.

The biggest news of course was the abduction of five bloggers in January 2017. It was only after local and international pressure was exerted that they were released. Neither of them has chosen to stay in Pakistan after a media campaign was orchestrated to accuse them of blasphemy while they were missing. This situation has amplified the amount of fear that exists among activists over exercising their right to speech on social media. The case of the bloggers had little to do with the new cyber crimes laws, but soon after, the FIA began to issue summons for a number of social media activists to answer uncertain charges. There is no question that the last year has been one of the worst in terms of digital freedoms for people in Pakistan. Apart from the large number of websites that continue to remain banned, anyone trying to speak truth to power does not know what to expect. Death threats on social media for people from religious minorities are also not unheard of. The problem is not just of the internet, it is about the quality of Pakistan’s democracy and the potential for a more progressive future in which the rights of citizens are enshrined. The criminalisation of online speech will need to stop for the situation of online freedom to improve in Pakistan.

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