July 15, 2020 – A civil petition has been filed in the Lahore High Court (LHC) demanding an immediate ban of the mobile video application, TikTok in the country. The petition is currently pending in court.
Advocate Nadeem Sarwar, who filed the application on behalf of a civilian, told Dawn that the matter is of great importance, and says that at least 10 deaths have been reported in the country that were all linked with TikTok. The petition also highlights that the users of the application promote pornography for fame on the internet.
The lawyer argued that the application is also banned in Bangladesh and Myanmar on grounds of indecency, and said that it should be banned in Pakistan as well for the same reason.
TikTok has received its share of criticism in Pakistan from various groups and individuals on account of its content allegedly promoting immodesty and indecency in the country. The content creators on the application have also been the target of repeated harassment on the internet and offline.
Advocates of free and artistic expression, however, argue that TikTok allows people from all walks of life to contribute content on its platform, essentially diminishing the class divide that is evident on other social media apps. Shmyla Khan, Director Research and Policy at the Digital Rights Foundation, says, “TikTok has been able to attract users from across the spectrum of class, age and sensibilities. Given its content and demographics, TikTok is dismissed as frivolous at best and a threat to cultural norms at its worst.”
She adds, “The objections raised in the LHC petition speak to these societal anxieties where any space for self-expression is seen as a threat to the status quo, especially if a large part of the user base consists of middle or lower middle class users, women, young people and trans individuals – their expression is inherently seen as a ‘threat’ to society and in need of ‘control’.”
Sadaf Khan, Director Programs and Co-Founder of Media Matters for Democracy, echoes Shmyla’s concerns, and says, “Artistic freedoms are intrinsically linked with our right to freedom of expression. Where class divide is so rampant in society that the privileged look down on the way a person from the working class exercises their rights, the avenues are very restricted for them to express themselves.” She further says, “TikTok has given people from every strata of society an ability to occupy online spaces in a way that is impactful among the masses. When have we ever seen a person from a small town to directly work with the government on its emergency management strategy? TikTok has enabled it because it reaches the audience that no one with supposedly fancy platforms or resources has effectively reached.”
After being called out for not moderating content on its platform, TikTok, in its second transparency report, revealed that it had removed over 14 million videos of content creators on its platform, for violating its community guidelines. Out of these 14 million videos, over 3 million videos were from Pakistan.
Similar attempts to ban online platforms within easy reach of the masses have been made in the past. Recently, in response to a petition filed in LHC, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) ordered a ban of the popular mobile phone game PUBG in Pakistan on the basis of it being a waste of time, for promoting violence and for affecting mental health of its players. However, in a hearing on this case in Islamabad High Court (IHC) on July 14, Justice Amir Farooq commented that the PTA should have taken advice from a mental health expert before banning the game. PTA’s lawyer said that the game was banned due to religious and ethical sensitivities. IHC reserved the decision on the hearing, citing that it has become a practice to ‘put everything in that category’ (to justify the ban).
Hija is a Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She combines her experience in digital rights in Pakistan to lead digital rights and internet governance advocacy of MMfD. She tweets at @hijakamran