ISLAMABAD: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) human rights cell president former senator Farhatullah Babar said that the Election Commission should devise a code against manipulation of digital spaces for achieving “positive” results.

“There is also a need for ending digital manipulation to ensure free and fair elections. The Supreme Court in its verdict in the Faizabad ‘dharna’ (sit-in) case has called it ‘nebulous tactics’ by state agencies. The various video leaks of all types are also information manipulation,” he expressed these views while addressing a seminar on “Digital Divide” in Islamabad on Friday.

He said that women, students, minorities, disabled and transgender are the most handicapped in accessing information in digital spaces resulting in their disempowerment and there is a need to bridge the divide.

The former secretary general of PPP said in any discussion on digital divide it is important to discuss digital manipulation of elections through fake news in mind in this election season. He said that fake news through social media were employed in US presidential elections in 2016, as well as, in the Brexit referendum.

He said on the surface those involved in manipulations are political parties, extremist groups, media organizations but invisible elements also have played a role.

He also recalled how in 2010 fake Wikileaks were published by the mainstream media eulogizing Pakistan’s security establishment and demonizing others. The mainstream media then had to apologize for falling prey to fake news, he said.

He said three power centres control information namely, government media, private media, and the invisible ones behind the “nebulous tactics”.

Babar said the proposed plan must be based on access, affordability, skills and awareness about digital spaces as creators of wealth, education, and opportunities. He said that information is power and access to it by all is a power multiplier and vital for inclusion.

He said that the digital landscape was heavily tilted against the students of remote areas in merged districts of Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan who are fast losing learning opportunities not only due to poor internet access but also due to whimsical internet shutdowns.

A security-driven state does not recognise access to information as a fundamental right, he said. “The security establishment refuses to answer questions asked under RTI even while the Supreme Court has started answering such questions”

He said that digital inclusion of all means that no one is left off line but students and women are mostly offline.

About the reasons for marginalisation of women in digital spaces, he cited lack of access to technology, political and economic disempowerment, poor education, societal norms, early marriages and above all gender-based harassment as reasons, he said.

He said only 18 per cent women in Pakistan have bank accounts as against 51 per cent men. Only 50 per cent of women have mobile phones as opposed to 81 per cent of men. Only 19 per cent of women as opposed to 38 per cent men used the internet in Pakistan.

He said that PECA 2016 had increased restrictions on access to information and called for its review. Sections of the law pertaining to training of judicial officers and the FIA to place its report before the Parliament are not being implemented, he said.

He said that journalists and activists have been charged under PECA for “anti-state” speech. Vague summons and FIRs in non bailable offences, threat of raids and an unending trial period like blasphemy accused loomed over their heads before being finally acquitted.

The draconian PECA and the absence of Data Protection law had exposed citizens to gross misuse of the law, he said.

Babar said that the high courts normally avoided interference with investigation but it was at this stage a lot of coercion of the citizen took place. Article 10-A guarantees due process as a basic right opens the doors for courts to ensure protection of human rights both during investigations and trial stages under PECA, he said.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023


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