Dhaka: ARTICLE 19, South Asia expresses deep concern over the persistent deterioration of Pakistan’s civic space and media freedom at the advent the country going to celebrate its 74th Independence Day on 14th August this year. Pakistan ranked 145 out of 180 countries – falling three places from 2019 – in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index. The Pakistan's global index rank declined for several issues such as killings of journalists, restrictions imposed on news media, withdrawal of government ads, harassment, intimidation, violation of independent journalism, detention, abduction, and frivolous lawsuits against journalists.
The Freedom Network – a Pakistan-based media and development sector watchdog – found over 90 cases of “attacks and violations” against the media. The report showed that over the past year, seven journalists had been killed, two abducted and nine had been arrested, along with various others experiencing other forms of intimidation such as threats and assaults. What is perhaps more worrying is that the report found the federal capital Islamabad to be the most dangerous place for journalists where over 34 percent of the recorded cases of violence against journalists happened in 2019.
In a statement issued to the media today, Faruq Faisel, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 South Asia, an UK-based International Human Rights Organization said, “In Pakistan, intimidation and threats are increasingly being used against journalists and media houses, which has resulted in self-censorship and risks putting many journalists in danger. Surveillance and shutting down of social media, with the widely used 2016 cybercrime law by the authorities, has been another attempt of silencing dissent, especially those critical of the government”.
“With rising intolerance and crackdown on dissent, especially when it comes to criticism of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, Pakistan’s press freedom and media environment are at risk. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government promised to address corruption, mismanagement, unemployment, foreign debts, the economy, and a bad international image, but these actions against journalists, critiques, and the state of civic space seem to be counter-intuitive towards those goals for a better Pakistan. Freedom of expression and opinion is bedrock for an open and democratic society promoting growth and well-being for all”, he added.
On 21 January 2020, the Pakistan Government revealed a new bill called the Citizens Protection (against Online Harms) Rules 2020 in the Official Gazette which resulted in immediate concern regarding the state of free speech and privacy on social media and online platforms in Pakistan. The new rule was introduced to regulate social media platforms for streaming content related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, sedition, fake news, defamation, violence, and national security. The bill grants any government agency extensive powers to instantaneously remove any content which is in ‘opposition to fundamental values of the state of Pakistan.’ The vagueness of the bill is worrisome, as this will allow the government to decide what these values are, and how they apply to different speakers in Pakistan. Under the new bill, social media companies will be legally obligated to filter content and to disclose user’s data at the request of the government to handle defamation, terrorism, extremism, “fake news”, and other categories of prohibited content as it is being uploaded. Another requirement of the new rule is that social media companies would have to deliver any data that government investigators ask for in a decrypted and readable format, essentially, ending any form of encryption technologies in the country.
Human Rights groups and activists were fast to call out the possible dangers of the bill and asked the government not to approve such legislation. However, as the authorities have formally initiated the consultation process beginning of June 2020, human rights groups have refused to participate in the review process. Earlier in March 2020, over 100 rights organizations and individuals had announced a boycott of talks with the government unless they revoked the bill and engage in broad, transparent consultation with legislators, civil society, social media companies, and other relevant stakeholders.
Faruq Faisel said, “The media situation in Pakistan deteriorated in the context of the controversial election in 2018. When many media publications, critics, and journalists called out the security and intelligence agencies on their involvement in the election, authorities sought to silence them. Pakistan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), therefore its government has an obligation to uphold the promise it made to the International community and ensure Pakistanis can exercise their fundamental freedoms without any obstruction.”
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Pakistan government and authorities to take effective measures to uphold civic space and media freedom in the country. The government needs to investigate violations and that those responsible are brought to justice.