December 9, 2020: Pakistan’s civil society and multiple rights bodies have condemned the new social media rules introduced by the incumbent PTI-led government, calling for the draconian laws to be denotified, and Section 37 of the cybercrime act repealed immediately.
In a statement written on December 3, concerned citizens and organisations condemned “the undemocratic, ad hoc, and non-transparent manner in which Pakistan’s federal government has made changes” to the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2020, regretting a consistent “lack of transparency, procedural irregularities, narrative diversion, and secrecy by the government”.
The letter highlighted that the Rules have not only been shrouded in secrecy and dented the trust of citizens in the government, but the actions around and about them have been worrisome and suspicious.
For example, Prime Minister Imran Khan “suspended” them but his act in itself had “no legal basis as the PM cannot overrule Cabinet’s decision”, the statement mentioned.
In addition, the civil society was, earlier this year, invited to a consultation process but since there had been no formal de-notification of the Rules, it led to a boycott. Then, the October 20, 2020, version of the Rules published in the Extraordinary Gazette “was replaced with a PDF dated October 6, 2020, titled ‘the corrected version’”.
The statement underscored that the Rules “exceed even the scope of Section 37” of the cybercrime act, or The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, and “violate various fundamental rights”, terming them “undemocratic, illegal, and unconstitutional”.
The PECA’s Section 37 has been “weaponised” by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) “to arbitrarily censor political and cultural speech”, it underlined.
In their demands, the citizens have called for the Rules to immediately “be denotified by the Federal Cabinet” and for the Parliament to “repeal Section 37”.
Lawyers, students, professors, activists, feminists, artistes, politicians, policy specialists, journalists, and educators, among many others, were among the signatories, as were organisations fighting for digital rights, open Internet, and media freedom, such as Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), Bolo Bhi, and Digital Rights Foundation, human rights bodies, including Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), and lawyer groups such as the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), Courting The Law, Asma Jahangir (AGHS) Legal Aid Cell, and the Sindh High Court Bar Association (SHCBA).
Those concerned about the new laws also included journalist and media freedom bodies, such as the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), South Asia Press, and the Freedom Network, as well as news media groups, including Sujag videos and Voicepk.net. Moreover, the Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi chapters of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and the Women Democratic Front (WDF) have also signed the statement.
Last Friday, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) had observed that the Rules were “prima facie in violation of Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution” of Pakistan.
IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah’s remarks had come during a hearing of a petition as the capital’s top court explored the broader question of the PTA’s arbitrary powers under the PECA 2016, now expanded by the November 2020 Rules.
The Rules were published on October 20, 2020, in the Extraordinary Gazette despite public reprisal and a call for revision after social media users ‘caught’ them floating on the Internet without any intimation whatsoever by the government.
Drawing considerable ire for restricting the right to freedom of expression and speech of Pakistan’s citizens, the Rules were first introduced under a different name altogether back in February 2020 — the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 — and were “suspended” by PM Imran Khan.
The first version of the Rules had laid out a plan for the PTI government to localise data and have a ‘National Coordinator’ retain all control of digital information, in addition to other concerning and regressive provisions that could threaten citizen’s fundamental rights and the country’s digital economy.
The second version of the Rules which was gazetted in October, however, added a clause that discouraged criticism of public officials and departments. In the light of its rejection from civil society, the IT Minister Syed Amin ul Haque, in a live show updated that this clause was deleted and the new third version of the Rules has been notified and sent to be printed in Gazette. Civil society activists expressed their concern at the blatant disregard of legislative processes in the drafting and notification of these Rules.
Last month, the MMfD had urged for “the government to be cognisant of fundamental rights” and emphasised that the Rules were “excessive in scope, contradictory in text, and detrimental to Pakistan’s digital growth”. It had also pushed for the parliamentary parties to initiate discourse on the Rules.
The MMfD, through its news website — Digital Rights Monitor (DRM) — has also previously highlighted the PECA 2016 as “infringing the basic and fundamental rights” of the Pakistani people. It had also conducted an initial analysis of the new social media rules and their potential impact.