ISLAMABAD: As criticism continues to pour down on the government for approving a set of rules to regulate social media in the country, ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) officials defended the move, saying it’s meant to protect citizens from harmful content.
“There was no mechanism in place to protect our citizens’ interests [… and] our national integrity,” Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan told reporters during an informal interaction outside the Parliament House on Thursday.
She noted that after passage of the rules, social media companies would exercise caution in using content damaging national interest.
Ms Awan pointed out that previously, the government “did not know who was creating fake pages and harming socio-cultural and religious values”. The new rules, she said, would not only expose Pakistan’s opponents but also enable the authorities to stop extremists who spread hate on the basis of religion and race.
Firdous says regulation aims to protect citizens from harmful content; journalists assail decision
She claimed that social media was spreading disorder in society by propagating pornography, sexual abuse, child abuse, hate speech and sectarian material. “Some 73 per cent of Pakistanis are internet users. Social media users are increasing, especially among the youth. We will not take any step that is against the interests of these users,” she added.
Ms Awan said that because these companies had no offices or focal persons in Pakistan, whenever the government asked them to remove harmful material, the decision depended on the companies’ will. Under the new law, the companies would have to establish their offices in the country within three months, which would bring them under the ambit of the Pakistani legal system, she explained.
The social media companies will also be required to share their databank with the government as per the law. “The companies will have the right to challenge the authority’s decision if they think it will harm their interests,” Ms Awan said, adding that the forum for appeal would be the high courts.
Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry also brushed aside the impression that the new rules were meant to control social media for political gains.
Talking to reporters, he explained that these rules had been framed to regulate advertisements and harmful content on social media.
He pointed out that digital media “had taken the space of formal media” and there had been an exponential increase in digital advertising. If it was not regulated, it would further harm the already-suffering journalists and people, and cause damage to formal media, he cautioned. He said the purpose was to make the social media companies answerable for unlawful content.
PPP parliamentary leader in the Senate Sherry Rehman, when contacted, expressed reservations over the move and said this could become another path to the dark continent of growing web and media controls, on a scaffolding of poor cybercrime laws that were now used to stifle normal questioning of the government.
PFUJ opposes decision
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) opposed the decision to regulate social media. In a joint statement issued on Thursday, PFUJ president Shahzada Zulfiqar and secretary general Nasir Zaidi noted that the PTI government was bent upon placing restrictions on media, social media and freedom of speech since it had come to power in 2018.
“These attempts indicate government’s dictatorial tendencies and authoritarian behaviour and the fact that it cannot face criticism of any kind and from any medium of the media in the country,” they said.
“Attacks on media houses, forced retrenchments of independent journalists on the directives of state institutions, curtailment of advertisements to media to force media houses to toe government’s line are all aimed at curtailing freedom of expression in the country,” the statement said.”
The new rules to control the social media are like a last nail in the coffin of freedom of expression. The PFUJ also noted that the rules go way beyond the powers given to the government under the Pakistan Telecommunications Act and the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act.
The National Party also rejected the move. In a statement, NP Punjab president Ayub Malik said the PTI government was showing dictatorial tendencies and authoritarian behaviour due to criticism it was facing for price hike and failure of its economic and foreign policies. “Now it wants to survive on restrictions,” he remarked.