ISLAMABAD: Threats to the internet landscape, including arbitrary administrative shutdowns, misplaced judicial activism against internet freedoms, the rise of cyber-armies, enforced disappearances of activists and the abuse of cybercrime legislation have been on the rise across the country, according to a report titled Internet Landscape of Pakistan 2017.
The report, published by Bytes for All, is based on indicators developed after the customisation of the framework of freedom of expression given by former United Nations special rapporteur on expression and opinion Frank La Rue.
The annual report is an “indigenous effort” to regularly monitor and document trends and challenges impacting digital and human rights in Pakistan.
The report found that internet penetration has risen significantly following the auctioning of 3G and 4G spectrums.
However, the arbitrariness of available legal frameworks, the problematic interpretation of laws by the judiciary and repressive state authorities have resulted in a restricting landscape for the internet in Pakistan.
It claimed that 2017 in particular brought many challenges and troubling trends in the existing landscape. Blatant infringements on fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, access to information, peaceful assembly and association and the right to privacy were observed.
“As anticipated, terrible consequences emerged with the enactment of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. Several bloggers were abducted allegedly by the state authorities and many social media activists and journalists have been summoned by the investigation agencies for their online political expression. This trend has cultivated a climate of fear, self-censorship and further strengthened the culture of impunity,” the report claimed.
Increased access to the internet has also resulted in a greater threshold of online crimes against social media users and political activists with dissenting voices. This includes crimes patronised by state and non-state actors.
Cyber-armies hired and organised by state and non-state actors are another phenomenon used as an effective tool to stifle expression and distort progressive narratives in online spaces. These ‘armies’ manipulate truth and seed campaigns against individuals or like-minded groups to undermine their opinions by inciting violence, issuing threats and shrinking space. Minorities in the country are, in particular, often on the receiving end of such threats, the report said.
“While we will continue to monitor and document the ongoing trends in the cyberspace of Pakistan, we expect that this publication will help the authorities to re-think their strategies to make cyberspace a place where citizens’ fundamental rights are protected and socio-economic well-being is promoted,” it said.
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2017