A REPORT stating that digital media freedom remained weak in Pakistan during 2020-2021 should come as no surprise. The report titled Regulatory Repressions Amid Pandemic: State of Digital Media Freedoms in Pakistan 2021, published by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development, documents how Pakistan has slipped with lower points this year than the last and highlights a range of reasons behind this shrinking of freedoms.

Though access to the internet increased marginally, the report has found that the online freedom of journalists and citizens remains very much under threat. This is largely because the government has enforced draconian rules to regulate and monitor digital content through a centralised regulator. It captures how members of the media are consistently abused and harassed as part of coordinated drives to malign and discredit them. Members of the public, too, have been bombarded by “alarming levels” of misinformation.

Read: Journalist Asma Shirazi faces wrath of ministers

The PTI has an abysmal record when it comes to digital freedoms. Prominent members of the party and even their digital teams are regularly called out for trolling and intimidating journalists and activists online. Moreover, its growing authority to regulate the internet speaks volumes about its paranoia about citizens’ unfettered access to the internet. It demonstrates how the government wants control and has all the tell-tale signs of a surveillance-hungry administration.

Reflecting this trend, Pemra recently issued an absurd notification forbidding romantic scenes in television dramas — yet another reminder of a state obsessed with policing behaviour. The on and off banning of video-sharing platform TikTok, too, speaks to the state’s penchant for moral policing, as the PTA frequently calls content on the platform “immoral and against cultural values”.

This report is important, because not only does it highlight the dangerous threats to digital media freedom, it also calls for a progressive, safe and enabling environment for users on the internet. The PTI government has earned a negative reputation for being phobic and tyrannical about digital media freedoms. Rights groups, activists and even the Asia Internet Coalition have repeatedly called out the government for hindering citizens’ free access to the internet and shutting off Pakistan’s digital economy from the rest of the world.

Instead of being scared and controlling about technology, the government must embrace digital media as an incredible opportunity for a large young population. Improving internet penetration and access and encouraging people to express themselves on the internet is going to be beneficial — both to citizens and a democratic government.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2021

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