ISLAMABAD: The rules approved by the federal cabinet to regulate social media were challenged in the Islamabad High Court on Friday.
The petitioner, a citizen named Raja Ahsan Masood, has pleaded that the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020, should be struck down as they were in violation of the Constitution.
“The main objective of the impugned rules seems to be to control the social media though indirect control by the government and ruling party,” read the petition, filed through lawyer Jahangir Khan Jadoon.
The petitioner maintained that the rules were in violation of Article 19 of the Constitution and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
He also argued that they violated Article 4 of the Constitution that ensured a person’s protection under law and also Article 19A under which citizens had the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance.
“Undemocratic societies try to limit, manipulate, discredit, demonise or otherwise control free speech and to prevent dissemination of ideas or opinions that might threaten their narrative,” the petition read.
“To control the flow of information in any form, whether it is social media, print media or electronic media, is a favourite tool of dictatorships and the essence of tyranny.”
The petitioner claimed that the government had “secretly” approved the rules, which were against the basic and fundamental rights to information.
The Orwellian trend of social media surveillance
Prime Minister Imran Khan has already directed the information technology ministry to take stakeholders on board before implementing the social media rules.
The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 requires all social media companies including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to register within three months and establish their offices in Islamabad. They will have to create a data server in Pakistan within a year and block any account or prevent or remove any content that “violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan” and is “involved in spreading of fake news or defamation”.
Global internet giants, rights watchdogs, journalists and activists have opposed the new rules for regulating social media.
The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an association of leading internet and tech companies including Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, AirBnb, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Yahoo, Grab, LinkedIn, and Rakuten, has warned that the rules would severely cripple the growth of Pakistan’s digital economy and make it extremely difficult for its members to make their services available to the country’s users and businesses.
In a letter written to PM Imran, Jeff Paine, the managing director of the AIC, noted that the rules were vague and arbitrary and urged Islamabad “to initiate a proper public consultation to ensure wider participation to develop a new set of rules”.
“No other country has announced such a sweeping set of rules, Pakistan risks becoming a global outlier, needlessly isolating and depriving Pakistani users and businesses from the growth potential of the internet economy,” he added.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also expressed its concerns the authorities wanted to use the regulations to control the “freedom of expression and opinion in the guise of protecting “religious, cultural, ethnic, and national security sensitivities”.
“After imposing extensive censorship on the print and electronic media, the new rules are aimed at controlling social media, which is the last vestige of free space,” it added.
“Instituting such stringent rules will contract the space that exists for citizens to access information that the mainstream media does not, or cannot, provide.”
The country’s superior bars have strongly reacted over the PTI-led government’s social media policy, maintaining that it was aimed at restricting the right of access to information.
“The policy was approved in a completely secretive manner without any consultation with the stakeholders, including the legal fraternity, media community and other civil rights groups,” read a statement issued by the Pakistan Bar Council.
The Supreme Court Bar Association has demanded that the governing machinery and legislators of the country should refrain from making any legislation, which undermined the sanctity of Article 19 of the Constitution as well as to limit the freedom of the press.
“The legal fraternity will resist any attempt to snatch the right of freedom of speech, which is guaranteed as a fundamental right in our Constitution,” it added.
Senator Raza Rabbani, a senior PPP leader and former Senate chairman, has submitted a requisition to the Senate Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation for convening a meeting to take up the social media rules.
Nighat Dad, who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, believes that the new rules will give the authorities unflinching powers to stifle social media.
“The worrying part for me is that the definition around extremism, religion or culture is so wide and ambiguous and that means they have these unfettered power to call any online content illegal or extremist or anti-state,” she added.
“I do fear that this will be used against dissent, free speech and for political gains.”