July 17, 2020, Islamabad – The National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) has formed a committee to monitor COVID-19 related misinformation on mainstream and online media. The committee, to be led by the Federal Minister of Interior Brigadier Ijaz Shah, has been tasked to draft a policy framework to counter misleading and false information about the virus.
Committee members include representatives of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA)’s cybercrime cell. The committee also includes PM’s focal person on digital media Dr Arslan Khalid, and PM’s focal person on Covid-19 Dr Faisal Sultan as “senior members”.
In its first meeting held on July 16th, 2020, the committee directed the members to stringently monitor mainstream and online media, and take strict actions against misinformation under section 10a: Cyber Terrorism of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016.
FIA’s cybercrime wing director has been directed to closely monitor media, and take action against anyone spreading disinformation and misinformation around the virus. In addition, PEMRA’s director general was tasked to ensure that no false information was aired on electronic media.
Dawn reports that during the meeting, Shah said, “The primary purpose of this committee is to ensure that correct and credible information goes to our people,” adding that he would fully utilise the available resources to find people behind the spread of Covid-19 disinformation.
Dr. Arslan Khalid, the PM’s focal person on digital media, laid out the process of flagging misleading content on media. According to him, a focal person will flag the content with the assistance of ISPR and interior ministry, which will then be sent to the Ministry of Health where this content will be fact checked by health experts. If the content is determined to be false, then PTA and PEMRA will be directed to take action.
“If the person responsible does not listen to PTA and remove the content, then the ministry of health can approach FIA with a written order under Section 10a of the cybercrime law for spreading panic,” the PM’s focal person told Dawn.
The content will be analysed against its potential to create a “sense of fear, panic or insecurity in the government or the public” as described under s.10a: cyber terrorism of PECA.
Possible legal and rights violations
Farieha Aziz, co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights organisation, tweeted that the application of s.10a is “strictly with respect to offences under Sections 6, 7, 8 & 9 of PECA only”. She further highlights that, “PTA’s authority (Under PECA) with respect to content is limited to the categories under Section 37. It cannot extend it beyond what the law allows though it has and does.”
As per an agreement between the government and Facebook, the most popular social media platform in Pakistan, content that “contravened the guidelines issued by the federal and provincial governments is being removed from Facebook’s platforms for violation of its policy”.
Sadaf Khan, co-founder and Director Programs of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “We have already seen examples of how such laws and policies are playing out in different parts of the world. In Bangladesh for example, journalists and cartoonists have been arrested on similar charges.” She adds, “The government also seems divorced from the fact that the level of digital media information literacy in Pakistan is very low. The majority of citizens on Facebook, Twitter and other digital platforms, simply don’t have the technical skill and capacity to determine what is factually correct and what is not. To threaten all Internet users with possible criminal charges is ill advised. It would have been better to inform and educate the government’s own representatives about creating a factual narrative on coronavirus.”
The government and spread of misinformation
There have been multiple instances, where government officials and representatives have engaged in spreading misinformation on the media and online.
Government officials have been found to quote misleading information on both mainstream and online media. For instance, PM Imran Khan in one of his live addresses in March, said, “If you get coronavirus, you will soon recover because it’s just like the flu.”
A day after the PM’s address, on March 23, the former Minister of Information Firdous Ashiq Awan, in one of the press conferences, said, “coronavirus is dangerous, but not deadly”.
Governor Punjab, Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, in his press conference on March 20, said, “if you keep drinking hot water at regular intervals, the virus goes to your stomach instead of your lungs where it is then killed.”
President of PTI Karachi and MNA, Khurram Sher Zaman, said in a press conference on May 9, “the Sindh government is falsely exaggerating COVID-19 figures. When we go to the hospitals, we learn there’s no coronavirus patients there.”
Zaman, in a talk show, also said, that the type of coronavirus that we have in Pakistan is of “Category C” which is the weakest type of coronavirus, unlike what Italy or New York has.
Talking to DRM about the misinformation that is propagated by government officials on media, Dr. Arslan Khalid said, “If government officials or any political leaders say anything which falls in this disinformation category, that official will be called in for explanation and not media.” Referring to Khurram Sher Zaman’s statement about Sindh government exaggerating COVID-19 patients’ figure, Dr. Arslan said, “This is disinformation and falls in the category where actions are necessary and will be taken in future.”
Asad Baig, co-founder and director of Media Matters for Democracy, says in a tweet, “Large part of Covid-19 disinfo is being perpetrated by govt officials &/or ruling party leaders. Instead of taking extreme steps maybe start by fact-checking the disinfo spread by people in political roles?”