Digital media freedom in Pakistan remains weak: report

Published October 29, 2021
A man explores social media on a computer at an internet club in Islamabad. — Reuters/File
A man explores social media on a computer at an internet club in Islamabad. — Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: The state of digital media freedom in Pakistan remained weak during 2020-21 due to regulatory pressures and threats against online expression.

At the same time, the general public was exposed to alarming levels of online disinformation, including false messages about Covid-19 origin and treatment, which put their health and safety at risk.

These were the crux of a report, ‘Regulatory Repressions Amid Pandemic: State of Digital Media Freedoms in Pakistan 2021’ published by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) in connection with the International Internet Day, which is observed on Oct 29.

While Pakistan showed limited gains in internet access and use during the global pandemic, the digital freedoms of media workers and internet users were threatened by the government’s enforcement of controversial rules to regulate online content and its proposal for converged media regulation through a new centralised regulator, according to the report.

Says citizens exposed to alarming levels of online disinformation

IRADA Executive Director Mohammad Aftab Alam said the compilation of findings and recommendations from local and global studies was intended to provide a comprehensive overview of the digital rights situation in the country.

“We hope that the report will provide relevant stakeholders, including journalists, digital rights advocates, human rights defenders and policymakers, with a consolidated guide to the issues related to digital media freedoms. The report can help them develop strategies to overcome the challenges to digital rights in the country and create a progressive and safe enabling environment for digital media,” he said.

The report covers five areas related to digital media freedoms – access, online freedoms, privacy, legal framework and judicial actions – in order to develop a wide-ranging understanding of the challenges faced by journalists and citizens in the effective and ethical use of online spaces.

According to the report, Pakistani journalists were consistently targeted with abuse, harassment and coordinated campaigns on social media to malign and discredit their profession during 2020-21. At the same time, the general public was exposed to alarming levels of online disinformation, including false messages about Covid-19 origin and treatment which put their health and safety at risk.

The digital divide negatively affected women, religious minorities and other marginalised groups during the pandemic even though internet connectivity and affordability showed slight signs of improvement.

“Online freedoms remained at risk in Pakistan with the country dropping to 25 points out of 100 in 2021 from 26 points in 2020 in the freedom on the net annual report. A data protection bill being developed by the federal government remained stuck at the draft stage despite receiving recommendations from digital rights groups, the report added.

The telecom regulator appeared to intensify its monitoring of social media content and took enforcement actions against social media apps on grounds of morality and decency, according to the report.

The number of cyber harassment complaints filed by women also saw an increase during the pandemic. The report also highlighted court rulings that endorsed the importance of free speech and privacy in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2021

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