A unanimous agreement among senators, renowned media professionals, human rights activists and representative of the Supreme Court Bar Association stressed that fundamental rights pertaining to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, enshrined in Pakistan’s Constitution (Article 19), should be ensured, as they are reflected in the international treaties of which the country is a signatory.
This was one of the outcomes of a seminar held on March 4, at the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS) in Islamabad, to assess, based on a human rights perspective, the implications of the ‘Citizens Protection from Online Harm Rules 2020’ introduced by the government on freedom of expression in the country. Based on feedback from civil society, a committee was established on the directives of the Prime Minister to hold an extensive and broad-based consultation process with all relevant stakeholders of civil society and technology companies about the new rules.
The seminar ‘Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom and New Social Media Regulations’, was organized by the Parliamentarians Commission for Human Rights (PCHR) and Parliamentary Taskforce on SDG.
The new social media regulations and the laws they invoke such as Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (re-organization) Act 1996, were discussed in relation to the right to information, right to privacy, and freedom of expression and by extension their effects on digital ecosystem and the economic and political rights. The status of the rules as of now remains unclear as they have already been approved and notified by the cabinet.
Participants emphasized the need for an inclusive and transparent consultative process on this issue. Particular aspects, such as unilateral content control, due procedure of the law for gaining access to citizen’s data, and ambiguity in clauses were discussed at length.
In relation to the recently launched ‘Digital Pakistan Initiative’, the direct impact of social media regulation on the growth of the digital economy in Pakistan was also discussed. Human rights based principles for internet governance, taking technology companies on board and ensuring openness, access, and connectivity to citizens were some of the essential factors considered to realize Pakistan’s ambition for creating its place in the global digital economy.
The participants urged the senators and members of the national assembly present at the seminar to safeguard the fundamental freedoms of citizens. Media associations such as Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), digital rights organizations including Media Matters for Democracy (MMFD), Institute of Research Advocacy and Development (IRADA) and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) joined in support.
This event was organized with the support of UNESCO’s Multi-donor Program on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (MDP).