January 21, 2020 – In a Federal Cabinet meeting on January 14, the Federal Minister for Law and Justice Farogh Naseem briefed the members on a plan to introduce new policies to crack down upon social media’, says senior journalist and anchorperson Rauf Klasra in his video blog.
According to Klasra, in the cabinet meeting chaired by PM Imran Khan, Naseem introduced two new policy summaries on the government’s plan to regulate social media, and to amend PEMRA Ordinance 2002 to grant sweeping powers to the authorities to tighten the regulation of mainstream media.
However, at least three ministers debated on the approach and the plan to crack down on online content and suggested multi-stakeholder consultations before proceeding on any such policies. Similarly, the Principle Secretary to the Prime Minister, Azam Khan, suggested the need to refer to the legality of the crackdown on social media, the need to follow legal procedures and recommended that the policies shouldn’t be adopted in a hurry.
Minister of Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry was in agreement with Azam Khan and also highlighted the need to consider the authority that should be responsible to carry this out, and the due process, Klasara mentioned in his video blog. Chaudhry further said that the Internet in Pakistan shouldn’t be limited by policies, and emphasised that we cannot regulate it on the model of China and Saudi Arabia since Pakistan has a democratic environment which needs to be respected.
Chaudhry also pointed out the role of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) in benefitting from social media and said that the intended crackdown is unfair. The Spokesperson of the Prime Minister, Nadeem Afzal Chan, also expressed his views against the policies and said that they will disproportionately interfere in the democratic and free culture of social media.
According to senior journalist Rauf Klasra, PM Imran Khan ‘taunted’ Afzal Chan by calling him ‘ultra-democratic’ for his views against the new policies, and “shared personal anecdotes with the cabinet where the media aired programs defaming his family members and pointed out that these incidents keep occurring on social media as well. He questioned how it can be allowed and why shouldn’t there be any limitations on this?”
Klasra further said, “This is when all ministers went quiet seeing that the PM thinks there should be laws that protect his family on social media.”
However, the plan to introduce a policy right away has been deferred for now.
The Prime Minister also ‘questioned’ PEMRA on their inability to ‘control’ news anchors and journalists on TV.
PEMRA spokesperson present in the meeting, according to Klasra, said that PEMRA can only take action as per the laws once the program is aired or when the complaint is filed against a televised program. They also highlighted that PEMRA cannot ‘control’ the content of the discussion before it has happened.
However, the Prime Minister wasn’t happy with the arrangement of PEMRA regulating content ‘after’ it is broadcasted, said Klasra. Apparently, now there are policies under consideration that could give powers to PEMRA to ‘check the broadcast content before it’s aired’, he added.
In July 2019, during an interview with the United States Institute of Peace, PM Imran Khan said, “The Pakistan media, in my opinion, is even freer than the British media […] it is not just free but sometimes out of control.”
According to Asad Baig, Director and Founder of Media Matters for Democracy, “Any sort of crackdown on the Internet, media, and journalism doesn’t serve the democratic principles well, and it gives an extremely bad reputation to Pakistan abroad. For instance, everybody in the world now knows that digital rights and civil liberties in India are a facade because of their communication crackdown against Kashmiris, do we really want the same reputation for Pakistan by allowing the ambitions and personal vendettas of political leaders to take over the process of policymaking? If such a crackdown indeed happens in Pakistan, then I feel there would be no point in criticising India for blocking content from IOK, because we would be doing the same to our people”.
He also added, “Having said so, I am extremely happy to see that there are many sane voices in the cabinet and the government who advised against such a crackdown, which shows that there is still hope, and unlike other governments, we have seen a certain amount of introspection in the PTI government, which is absolutely what we need at this point.”