On July 21, 2021, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked access to TikTok for the fourth time in the country over its failure to take down “inappropriate content”.
The Authority said in a brief statement shared on its website and social media profiles, “In light of relevant provisions of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, PTA has blocked access to [the] TikTok app and website in the country. The action has been taken due to [the] continuous presence of inappropriate content on the platform and its failure to take such content down.”
This is the fourth ban on this video-sharing app that has been subjected to government scrutiny and criticism since October 2020 when the first ban was instated by the PTA. The app has repeatedly been banned by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) over “immoral and indecent” content.
“Keeping in view the complaints and nature of the content being consistently posted on TikTok, PTA issued a final notice to the application,” PTA statement said. “However, the app failed to fully comply with the instructions. Therefore, directions were issued for blocking of TikTok application in the country,” read a notification issued on October 9, 2020, announcing the first ban on the app. While the ban was reversed after 10 days, it was challenged in Islamabad High Court on October 14.
This year in March 2021, the app was banned again as the Peshawar High Court (PHC) ordered authorities to immediately ban video-sharing social app TikTok over sharing of ‘immoral content.’
The orders were issued by PHC Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan, who was hearing a petition filed by a citizen seeking a ban on TikTok. He said that the ban should not be removed till all objectionable content is removed.
The PHC reversed its decision and allowed the PTA to unban TikTok. PHC Chief Justice Qaiser Rashid Khan said the application can be unblocked across Pakistan as long as “indecent” content is removed from it.
However, before the most recent order to ban the app, the Sindh High Court (SHC) had lifted the ban on the popular Chinese app less than 20 days ago after PTA assured the court of issuing a ruling on the petitions against the app for not removing content that was perceived as immoral and obscene.
The SHC had on June 28 ordered the telecom regulator to suspend the services of the video-sharing site on a citizen’s petition, who, according to his petition, was aggrieved by the “immorality and obscenity” on the mobile app. Commenting on the issue, Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry has criticised the court’s verdict banning TikTok across Pakistan till July 8, terming it “judicial activism”.
The musical-chairs of banning and unbanning TikTok drew considerable criticism from people across Pakistan, as the app has a massive userbase cutting across geographic and socio-economic demographics, numbering around 20 million users on the video-based social platform. These consistent bans were imposed even as the app had agreed to remove objectionable content for its Pakistani users.
“We are pleased that TikTok is once again available to our community in Pakistan. This is a testament to TikTok’s continued commitment to enforcing our community guidelines to promote a safe and positive community online,” said the Chinese owned app in a statement.
The musical-chairs of banning and unbanning TikTok drew considerable criticism from people across Pakistan, as the app has a massive userbase cutting across geographic and socio-economic demographics.
TikTok acknowledged the PTA for its “support and ongoing productive dialogue”. It also recognised the authority for their care of the “digital experience of Pakistani users”. It added that actions taken by the PTA will go a long way to assuring a stable, enabling environment to allow TikTok to explore further investment in Pakistan.
The implications of these constant bans on the app are drastic and directly impact the various rights, including the right to expression and free speech, communication, right to information, that the Constitution and other legal frameworks provide to the citizens. It also further restricts the chances of investment by global tech companies in the country – something that would positively impact the digital economy.
The problem with the model of governance the PTA has adopted through the banning of platforms as intimidation tactics to force said platforms to comply with demands of the authorities is that the system is not regulated by a rule of law narrowly defined and protecting the fundamental liberties of the people, but rather a rule of sentiment that is erratic, unpredictable and invasive; creating an overprotective parent state. The Pakistani constitution guarantees the right to free expression with legal caveats that are too broad to protect freedom of expression or access to information most of the time. Any expression can be restricted if it is “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality”. However, these limitations have been used time and again outside of their scope and have been weaponised to label online content immoral or obscene without actually defining what these terms mean and entail.
The implications of these constant bans on the app are drastic and directly impact the various rights, including the right to expression and free speech, communication, right to information, that the Constitution and other legal frameworks provide to the citizens.
In a bid to protect all citizens from immoral or indecent content based on the ambiguous and ill-defined terminologies of morality and obscenity, the authorities have been using their wide-ranging powers to unanimously ban expression and content on the internet without providing a reasonable justification to the judiciary — to restrict access for all people in the name of public morality.
In a recent hearing on August 6 on the petition challenging the TikTok ban in the country, Islamabad High Court questioned the grounds on which PTA had banned the app for the fourth time. Justice Athar Minallah remarked that social media applications are a source of livelihood for the people, and questioned PTA’s counsel whether the Authority wants to cut Pakistan off from the rest of the world. He further said that all types of videos are also available on YouTube. Will PTA also block YouTube? Will Google also have to be shut down?
These remarks of the IHC are particularly significant because as has been highlighted by observers and users in the past, especially when YouTube was banned in the country on account of the blasphemous video on the largest video sharing website, the attention towards objectionable content is diverted when these arbitrary bans are put on the platforms. The internet stores copies of data that is uploaded on it, and by banning one app, access to said content does not cease to exist, in fact, people find ways around to consume it more.
What the state misses out on is that the online realm is different in its access and governance, and there is a nuance needed to protect the right of expression in the digital world. Unlike a physical public space — where an act of public indecency harms and impacts citizens, and where citizens owe each other a duty of care — the digital world is demand-based. This means that content that goes against popular morals and ideas of decency are not visible to everyone indiscriminately, as it would be in an actual public space — on the internet, such content has to be looked up or searched for.
Here the state not only neglects its duty to protect the expression of divergent views but also treats its citizens as subjects, rather than well-informed capable decision-makers. Even if objectionable content exists on the internet, it is the duty of parents or guardians to restrict access to such content for minors and children. This highlights the dynamic relationship between public morality and state control; where the citizens do not have to uphold their parental care and duty because they can rely on the state to censor such content, and on the other hand, the authorities are allowed to infringe on civic space and exercise a pervasive control on the kind of content that exists on the internet. While catering to the moral panic around internet freedom, the state is empowered by laws like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), and institutions to swiftly take down content without much oversight, allowing them to use these tools to crack down on criticism, dissent and voices that challenge the state narrative.
Here the state not only neglects its duty to protect the expression of divergent views but also treats its citizens as subjects, rather than well-informed capable decision-makers.
This allows the model of governance to treat the individual as a subject, who knows nothing and is incapable of making choices for themselves and needs the state to micromanage access to information and content. This idea of governance is inherently antithetical to the democratic ideal of a citizen; a well-informed and capable individual who has the right to form opinions, no matter how divergent from popular morality/opinion, and direct public discourse and state policy. By continuing to give the state wide-ranging power, the authorities are enabled to maintain the colonial relation of power between the ruler and the ruled.
Apart from highlighting the state mechanism that allows such arbitrary ban on information and content, there is also a much more immediate harm that comes out of banning TikTok. No other social media platform has an equitable user-base that cuts across class and gender. TikTok has been able to attract users from the working-class stratum to an unprecedented degree and has allowed a space on the Pakistani digital sphere that is diverse and representative of a class that is always ignored by traditional entertainment media and has little engagement with other strata on text-based platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The class dynamic presents an interesting insight into the discourse of “immoral and obscene” content. This is due to what Dr. Claire Pamment, the author of ‘Comic Performance in Pakistan: The Bhānd’, terms the “obscenity discourse” in Pakistan; the discursiveness around what is moral and fit for public consumption for the masses, which translates to the gender politics and legal policies of the country. She argues that dance, music, and the performance of femininity is acceptable as long as the urban middle class performs it in a euro-centric fashion, but as soon as these things are adopted to more widely consumable mediums and languages, it is seen as obscene. That is to say that the participation of the working class en masse on TikTok is what gives the moral panic of obscenity.
The TikTok ban is emblematic of a much larger problem of governance in Pakistan, the shrinking space for civil society, the lack of proper laws to govern the specifics of digital spaces, the erasure of working-class expression, and a homogenous idea of morality defined by the state. This leads to a world where the state controls the civil society, as opposed to the civil society guiding state and policy. It also highlights how law — in most postcolonial states — is not a stable predictable code but a rule of individuals’ whims and wishes. The problem of curbing individual expression in the name of collective morality is so pervasive, that even the judiciary, the guardian of rights against state infringement, is also a party to this play. What Pakistan needs are better laws to ensure the protection of users on the internet, and free digital spaces that allow for citizens to access data and information without any discrimination or prejudice.
Balach Khan is a journalist and activist who writes about issues of differential access to power, marginalization, and human rights. He has covered stories of student politics, digital rights and other issues in Pakistan and has been published in numerous publications over the years. He was part of MMfD’s Summer Internship in 2021.