Free speech continues to be suppressed in digital spaces (Opinion)

Freedom of speech or expression is one of the core elements of democracy. In democratic countries, the citizens choose the government and also possess the right to express their opinions and debate on the issues that affect them.

Unfortunately, despite being a democratic state, Pakistan has not permitted its people to take part in the working of the state by way of deliberations and highlighting verbally the pitfalls of the state. The world is experiencing a digital revolution rapidly but, in our country, digital rights seem to be jeopardized by the state, depriving the citizens of a resourceful channel for vocalizing their concerns.

Critics believe that when freedom of speech is being undermined in a state, the latter becomes a source of terror for the citizens. When the government snatches away the right of people to think and express what they want, it creates the roots of fear and trust deficit between the two parties that grow violently and eliminate the chances of reconciliation, hence weakening democracy.
An assessment report named ‘Pakistan Freedom of Expression Report 2020’ by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) revealed that the country performed poorly in all the indicators that determine free speech. The covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the digital censorship in the country.

“COVID-related disinformation is a global concern and Pakistan is specifically susceptible to it considering our literacy rate,” said MMfD Cofounder Asad Beyg.

“I fear that the existing misinformation may already be fueling anti-vaccine narratives, and there isn’t an equal amount of effort in the mainstream media to counter it,” he added.

“Consequences of restrictions are particularly self-defeating in the time of Covid-19. More information is needed, rather than less so that citizens are aware of the severity of the problem,” said Zohra Yusuf, former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Pakistan scored 30 points out of 100 on the Freedom of Expression Assessment Index that analysts say proves the fact that the government has placed curbs on free speech and disallowed people to talk especially about the pandemic and the related information.
In the age of digitization and fast track globalization, Pakistani internet users face serious threats and intimidation for talking about something that criticizes the government and its agencies.

A bill passed recently from the parliament gave PEMRA wide-ranging powers that it misuses sometimes under the garb of blocking “objectionable content” that is associated with religion and politics. This has utterly disturbed digital and internet users who depend on the government for releasing their online freedom and permit them to disseminate useful information.

According to an estimate, there were 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2020 and their number increased by 11 million (+17%) between 2019 and 2020. This shows how heavily the amount of internet users is rising which also calls for the need of their free online working.

The smooth trajectory towards digitization and acquiring free speech is impeded by stringent cybersecurity laws, online bullying, strict oversight of media content, and the lack of awareness among the citizens of their rights.

Internet users, particularly the ones who are running an organization or working through a platform for securing digital rights are often harassed and threatened to change their course who otherwise get blocked.
Nighat Dad who founded the Digital Rights Foundation(DRF) to protect the digital rights especially of women and girls and other marginalized segments, has received many threats for her work but she has been found determinant in promoting human rights awareness in Pakistan. In view of the passage of the PECA act in Pakistan, Nighat Dad criticised the dismal state of digital governance in Pakistan and claimed that it is going in the wrong direction and needs adjustment.

“Draconian and punitive measures within the PECA are in some cases disproportionate to the acts they describe. The language is overly broad, and indicates that the government is not taking on board the concerns of civil society stakeholders,” Dad said.

“It tells us that the government’s answer to tackling digital terrorism is to censor and block, and to give ‘authorized officers’ very broad and reaching powers to do so, without taking on board concerns about digital privacy, safety, and freedom of speech online, ” she added.

According to the Article 19 of UNDP, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This implies that every citizen of a state is entitled to hold opinions and is also entitled to express them as he wants. However, the different state put a different ranges of restrictions but that does not limit the residents of that state to spread their ideas freely.

Experts have noted that in Pakistan, PTA usually bans and orders the citizens to exercise self-restraint on topics related to religious and political discourse. People who remain adamant to their views are met with penalties and blocking of their content from their online platforms. The uncontrolled and unchecked powers of PTA have paved the way for serious lack of information even on important issues that profoundly remains hidden from the public.

Rights activists maintain that in order to promote digitization the government should revisit its policy on content regulation and ensure the provision of digital rights to its citizens without any stern oversight that threatens their freedom of speech and expression. The censorship imposed by the state clearly affects social media users, telecommunication authorities and freedom of press that creates hindrances for democracy to flourish.

It is also found that when issuing the legislation, there exists a strong disconnection between policymakers and the stakeholders mainly in the private sphere that leads to producing critics call an irrelevant, unjustifiable piece that is not acceptable to variety of public.

Analysts say that for regulating media content, and curbing online hatred and terrorism, the state should take on board all the participants and then tactfully make decisions in the light of betterment of the citizens and the country.

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