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EDITORIAL: The government was only fooling itself if it really thought that its new social media rules would be heartily accepted by all stakeholders. The rules, notified by the ministry of information technology the other day, are formally called “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020,” and have been framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. They require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Social Media Companies (SMCs) to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within nine months and also establish permanent offices, with physical address, inside Pakistan. And, of course, they also draw a number of red lines that nobody would be allowed to cross in terms of just what kind of material is to be allowed on social media. As usual they range from very serious issues like blasphemy, pornography and child abuse, all of which should no doubt be checked, to excuses that are routinely used to stifle discontent, like national security, the greater good, and all that. It’s not really surprising that some of these issues have been included in this list, since this government hasn’t had much of an appetite for any kind of criticism since the day it came to power, but it is telling they have brought these things within the purview of PECA, which means questioning the wrong people in the wrong way may well be treated as a crime in the future.

It almost beggars belief that a party that owes its rise to popular media as much as anything else would look to police the online space in this manner. One can only wonder where everything the prime minister loved so much about the British democratic model went once he won the election. Now, rather than encourage all forms of expression especially constructive criticism like he so often said on the campaign trail, he sits atop a government that is trying to blatantly muzzle the media. It seems that the inability of some of our most senior politicians to learn from the past transcends political parties. Such actions not only provoke a backlash and sour the atmosphere for no reason at all, they also betray an unforgivable level of ignorance of how just such measures have caused so much harm to the country’s social fabric in the past. Let us not forget that Pakistan has had the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only country in the world, in General Zia’s time, of introducing a law in the penal code that made something count as defamation, in case somebody felt defamed by it of course, even if it were “true and in the public interest.” Nobody needs to be reminded about how that, and other such measures like gagging the press, turned out.

Now more time will be wasted as this matter is dragged through court. One of the main complaints most stakeholders upset by it is that some provisions within these rules in fact violate the law. That is why the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan (ISPAK) has rejected the new rules and digital rights activists are complaining that they bring too much government into social media.

There is no denying that there are times when certain checks are needed, but that is only in the most serious cases. Yet there is simply no way any country with even a partially working democracy can even pretend to control online content for too long this far into the 21st century. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution, after all, so by going down this road the government is only setting itself up to learn this particular lesson the hard way. Soon enough this will make the wrong kind of headlines in the international press and even sooner than that it will be ridiculed at opposition rallies, quite ironically, by politicians that never liked the press too much in their own time in government. The simple fact is that the rapid growth of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have not just rewritten the book on multinational outreach and reconfigured international financial markets, but also completely redefined the relationship between the state and the people. For the latter are now more empowered than ever to keep an eye on the former and shame them when necessary. The old kind of censorship, like the typical phone call to the newsroom about which news items were allowed for publication, will just not work in the online world. The sooner the government comes to terms with this reality, the better for everybody, and the less it will be criticized on the internet.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020