The government’s announcement of a crackdown on social media to deter content against national institutions has prompted accusations of curbing freedom of expression and victimizing political activists.
The crackdown was ordered after attacks on national institutions have intensified on social media. The judiciary and the army, which cannot be criticized even in the parliament, are targeted on social media without any fear. A smear campaign was launched against Pakistan on the arrival of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Recently, a journalist was booked for controversial tweets. There is no doubt that social media could be beneficial, if used positively. The Internet has revolutionized lives. In today’s digital era, social media has become the most powerful tool for social change. However, it is also being used by criminal-minded people to promote hate and extremist ideologies. Many analysts suggest that there is a direct link between social media and hate crimes. According to a research report, social media has all the potential to act as a propagation tool between online hate speech and real-life violent crime.
Some recent developments forced the government to announce a crackdown on elements using social media to propagate extremist narrative. Addressing a training workshop for parliamentarians, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said a mechanism had been finalised in consultations with the security agencies and several people were arrested for misusing social media. Fake accounts are being used to promote hate and issue edicts. The minister said, “We are also setting up the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority which will provide a one-window facility to all media outlets and ensure the enforcement of the regulations. In the next phase, we will further consolidate the gains made against terrorism by not allowing those resorting to hate speeches.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed serious reservations over the government’s plan to crack down on social media. It said, “We strongly feel the need to equip human rights defenders with measures to use social media apps safely and productively amid growing fears of curbs on social media – especially on social media activists and journalists who have spoken out on subjects that receive little, if any, space in the mainstream media. The state must pay heed to sheer number of human rights defenders across the country who rely on social media apps for news, information on human rights violations, and calls to mobilize around rights-based issues – especially in many areas where social media apps are the only secure means of communication. The fundamental right to information is closely linked with ways of exercising freedom of expression, movement and assembly – all of which are critical to human rights work in Pakistan.”
Experts say the impending crackdown on extremist narratives on social media is an opportunity for the PTI government to show that it can distinguish between legitimate expression of political opinion and words that incite religious or ethnic hatred against individuals or communities. About a year before coming to power, Prime Minister Imran Khan had accused the PML-N government of abusing the cybercrime law, when some PTI activists were arrested, and denounced their detention as being “unacceptable in a democracy”. Several PTI legislators had also submitted a calling notice in the National Assembly seeking to discuss the “harassment of social media activists”. According to Twitter’s biannual report, between January and June 2018, the government, headed by the PML-N at the time, reported an unprecedented 3,004 profiles to the social networking site for allegedly “inciting violence” and “spreading hate material” and sent requests seeking the removal of 243 accounts. As the PTI has come to power, it can demonstrate that these were not merely empty gestures made only to advance its own cause.
Curbing hate speech in various formats, including social media is one of the 20 points that comprise the National Action Plan. The civil-military leadership, which devised the blueprint, recognised that kinetic action without social intervention was meaningless. According to a recent study, 41 banned groups are active on social media in the form of hundreds of pages, groups and individual user profiles.
Many governments in the world have adopted strategies to regulate social media. The situation in Pakistan is very disturbing. The presence of hate material and baseless propaganda against vulnerable communities is particularly alarming. A nationwide awareness campaign is required to highlight the importance of using social media for the betterment of society. Instead of restricting social media by force, positive use of the Internet must be encouraged. The Internet regulation strategies of different countries, such as Turkey, China and Iran, could also be analysed before launching a crackdown. Experts say if the government has decided to take a more proactive approach in curbing extremist narratives, it must first define the parameters. Many political and rights activists opposed the Cybercrime Bill, apprehending that it would be liberally and arbitrarily applied to silence dissent and the diversity of political opinion. They say the crackdown on social media in the name of hate speech is an old trick to silence critics of government policies. The information minister’s statement that social media needs to be controlled, like electronic media, is not only an admission of censorship on the government’s part, but also signals the fact the government does not understand the fundamentally different nature of social media, they say. It is hoped that the law will be applied to clamp down on violent extremism, rather than political opponents.