On the first day of this month, Wikipedia’s services were degraded by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the platform was banned, there was widespread condemnation, the ban made global headlines, the National Commission on Human Rights wrote to the PTA, civil society and business community advocacy groups issued a joint statement, the PM’s office issued directions to the PTA to lift the ban and ultimately, Wikipedia became accessible once again in Pakistan. All of this happened within the span of a week.
Amid all this, the real reason behind the move was never even disclosed, with the PTA simply saying that the platform was banned for “not blocking / removing sacrilegious contents”. What these contents were is anybody’s guess.
More recently, a ministerial committee constituted by the prime minister and chaired by the IT minister, barred the PTA from blocking websites without first consulting the ministry.
But with what authority? It was the PML-N government that introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) in 2016 despite much resistance, and empowered the PTA to block platforms through a vaguely worded Section 37.
In two challenges to the exercise of blocking powers before the Islamabad High Court (IHC), the court noted in its judgments that under the scheme of Section 37, since the law commits powers to the PTA, only the authority can discharge these functions, but that such power must be regulated through rules as per Section 37(2). The purpose of this was to fix responsibility and also ensure the regulator discharges its duties lawfully and independently, free from external manipulation and political influence.
Contrary to the rules introduced, the law envisages such rules to conduct oversight and regulate PTA’s powers, not act as an instrument to give it a freer hand.
Section 37 mentions powers for “blocking of access to an information through an information system.” Nowhere does it mention the power to block platforms entirely — this was subsequently written into the rules introduced by the current IT ministry.
While the executive stepping in to take a favourable stance on Wikipedia may seem applause-worthy, the direction could be the complete opposite tomorrow — as has been the case in the past — to block political content.
Executive influence over regulatory power is not something to be celebrated nor is it legally permissible in this instance. Instead of issuing directives and setting up committees devoid of legal authority — as was done in the past with the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites (IMCEW) — why doesn’t the government disband the rules and move a bill to repeal Section 37, where the real problem and its legitimate legal mandate lies?
Till the time regulators behave like playground bullies and hold an entire nation hostage to their ego, Pakistan cannot progress economically, socially or in just about any sphere. The latest episode of this ego power trip occurred because one directive was not complied with. The response from the powers that be was to mete out collective punishments to teach a lesson to one in tribal fashion.
We continue to be held hostage to uninformed decision making in the public sector where tech services and platforms are concerned. Instead of harnessing tech for its potential, especially at a time when Pakistan is faced with a gruelling economic situation, the message being sent to the world is that we still dwell in a primitive age where blanket bans are imposed in 2023.
In a jurisdiction where regulatory uncertainty prevails and both legal and extra-legal measures are employed to coerce citizens and businesses, Pakistan is not exactly being marketed as a rule of law compliant or lucrative place to attract investment — monetary or human resource.
As though competing for the most absurd regulator spot, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) issued a notification, prohibiting the broadcast of the F9 rape incident.
Enforcement to the extent of protection of the victim’s identity is understandable — Clause 8.6 of the Pemra Code of Conduct prohibits licensees from revealing the identity of a victim.
However, issuing a directive saying “broadcast/rebroadcast of news/reports with regard to F-9 Park Islamabad incident is PROHIBITED, with immediate effect” comes across as a blanket prohibition. Vague regulatory directives that attach threats of regulatory action, whether service degradation, bans, suspension of licenses or fines, then lead to overregulation, censoring even protected speech and debates on public interest issues.
Criminalising free speech
If the regulatory rollercoaster was not enough, recent news reports disclosed that the Criminal Laws Amendment Bill, 2023, was under consideration before the federal cabinet. The bill, moved by the Interior Ministry, seeks to criminalise “defamation” of the armed forces and judiciary.
This is not the first proposal of its kind.
In 2021, a PTI MNA had moved a private members bill to the same effect. In 2022, the PTI government promulgated an ordinance, amending Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, to include the same, which was struck down by the Islamabad High Court.
Now, the Interior Ministry under the PML-N has moved this bill. As if the various sections of PPC and Peca are not already being used to this effect, without such amendments. After opposition internally, a committee was formed to deliberate further on the matter.
Read more: Project Peca I — How to silence a nation
Committees are the most convenient way to defer controversial legislation amid pushback, then revive what was objectionable in the first place, by propelling the “we held consultations” argument.
Elsewhere, consultations span years. They include publicly available drafts, white papers, and responses to input submitted. Here, laws and regulations are first prepared in secrecy, then urgency is cited, they are found on the agenda and put to a vote. Public outrage ensues, in some instances followed by legal challenges, then committees are formed, “consultations” held in a short time frame, with no proper terms of reference, to check boxes for optics. This was also true of how the social media rules were framed.
After the Islamabad High Court directed that parliament review the social media rules, nothing has been heard of them since. Presently, they appear to be under consideration before the law and justice committee, but what is being reviewed, who has been consulted and whether this process will be truly consultative in a more transparent and meaningful manner, is unclear.
The process is also inverted. The rules were first discovered in 2020 after a leaked copy was found in circulation, already notified. Consultations on rules or bills should take place before they are passed on for approval, a vote or notified.
Pakistan to date has no privacy legislation or data protection law. While versions have been afloat since 2005, clearly the priority is just not there to safeguard citizens or secure business or public sector data.
Every now and then, a bill appears, some level of input is sought and then it disappears again. This is why the corporate sector employs backdoor channeling on key policy issues and rights groups rely on public advocacy.
But what is also needed is public input, serious and sustained discourse around a table where there is diverse viewpoint representation as well as presence from constituencies both from the private and public sector, and within the public sector, from different decision-making rungs.
Parliamentary committees can convene public hearings, judicial academies can integrate courses in the curriculum rather than a one-off training, the executive can keep processes consultative year round.
But this requires effort and a genuine will to conduct transparent and truly meaningful discourse to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding, instead of kowtowing to the whims of certain quarters.
Too much is being sacrificed to egos, vested interests and a complete lack of understanding of the medium. If ad hoc, uninformed decision making prevails, in this sector as in any, we’ll only remain in a downward spiral, in what is truly an anti-people and anti-Pakistan agenda.
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