Information control by The News Editorial

A new study on regulation of online information by Bolo Bhi, a media rights and free information advocacy group, has traced the history of efforts to prevent citizens from accessing knowledge over social media. The study notes that the effort began in earnest with the setting up in 2006 of the inter-ministerial committee for the evaluation of websites and later the notification of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes law in 2016. Now the effort has been strengthened with the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. These proposed rules have met with immediate opposition and the prime minister has decided they be shelved for the moment until it is possible for the federal cabinet to review them and determine if they will protect citizens or in fact restrict their access to knowledge.

As per the study, there are already mechanisms in place to protect citizens on online crime. In 2006, after the first measures to officially restrict social media under the regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf, the PTA was simply given instructions to block certain political websites. Many of them are still impossible to access. The views of these organizations, whether right or wrong, whether factual or inaccurate, thereby disappeared from the public domain.

In effect, the state of Pakistan seems convinced that it has the right to determine what citizens see and what they hear and what they read over social media. There have been instances in which Twitter or Facebook have been asked to remove material which the state deems is not suitable for viewing by the people. And we now live in a time when, along with mainstream journalism, social media content is also in danger of being censored or banned or blocked in Pakistan. This sort of heavy hand of the state, which uses any and all excuses – morality, ethics, religion, 'decency' – for its efforts at censorship will only lead us down a dangerous path of complete conformity of narrative and crackdown on any kind of dissenting thought. From TikTok to Bigo to YouTube to Twitter, must we as citizens of Pakistan wage a constant battle just for the luxury of watching a few funny videos or tweeting out a rant or two or – in what is now becoming increasingly impossible – airing thought deemed critical of the status quo? The nanny state we live in has also taken it upon itself to decree which parts of the country even get access to the internet. Such dangerously oppressive steps only lead us to wonder what use 'freedom' is if it remains shackled to the whims and fancies of a few.

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