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The Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) on Friday rejected the reported approval of new rules to rein in social media and curtail freedom of expression by the government without any consultation with relevant stakeholders.

The PBC Vice Chairman, Abid Saqi, said that the federal cabinet in its meeting on February 12 reportedly approved a new set of proposals that seek to unabashedly gag the media and curtail freedom of expression and digital rights of the citizens online.

"PBC is extremely concerned that the Citizen of Protection (against online harm) rules, 2020, reportedly approved by the cabinet to tighten and control social media in the country in secretive manner without any consultation with the stakeholders including the legal fraternity, media community and other civil rights group," he said.

Saqi said that the PBC rejected the draconian regulations aimed at severally hampering social media platforms where over 60 million Pakistani digital citizens express their constitutional rights to freedom of expression under Article 19 and right to information under Article 19-A.

The PBC urged the parliament and the political parties to reject and resist the draconian new measures; otherwise the enforced silence of Pakistani people would also extend to the people's representatives sitting in the parliament, the media as well as the bar and the bench.

Saqi said that the PBC believed that the reported rules, prima facia, sought to curb online free speech, invade privacy of citizens and restrict their access to information, and hence were not only in conflict with the spirit of articles 14, 19 and 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan but were also against the principles of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The PBC is of the view that the scope of the rules goes way beyond the confines of the parent legislation, i.e., the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 (XVII of 1996), or the PTA Act and Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 (XL of 2016), he said.

Saqi said, "Vague definitions, the representative nature of the mechanism of the proposed office of the national coordinator and arbitrariness in its proposed decision-making process, as provided by the rules without any statutory backing, reflect the real malicious intent of the government behind this action."

The PBC is extremely concerned that just like the PECA law, which was trumpeted as a law to prevent electronic crimes but is actually being used to curb free expression online, the rule also clearly aim at providing more state control on online content and communication of social media users in Pakistan instead of protecting citizens against online harm, he said.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020