ISLAMABAD: The top bodies representing the legal fraternity expressed concern on Friday over reports that the government is weighing a set of proposals that seek to gag the media and curtail freedom of expression and digital rights of citizens online.
Abid Saqi, the Pakistan Bar Council’s (PBC) vice chairman, and Syed Qalb-e-Hassan, the Supreme Court Bar Association’s (SCBA) president, said the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 were meant to control social media. The rules were made in a secretive manner and without consultations with stakeholders like the legal fraternity, the media and civil rights groups, Mr Saqi and Mr Hassan said.
Abid Saqi said the PBC believed the proposed rules, prima facie, seek to curb online free speech, invade privacy of citizens and restrict their access to information. “The proposals are not only in conflict with the spirit of Articles 14, 19 and 19A of the Constitution but also against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Pakistan is a signatory,” he added.
The Pakistan Bar Council is of the view that the scope of the rules goes way beyond the parent legislation — the Pakistan Telecommunication (Reorganisation) Act, 1996 (XVII of 1996) and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 (XL of 2016), the vice chairman said.
Vague definitions, the non-representative nature of the proposed office of “national coordinator” and arbitrariness in its proposed decision-making process reflect the government’s “malicious intent” behind this action, Abid Saqi alleged.
“The PBC is concerned that just like the Electronic Crimes Act, which was trumpeted as a law to prevent electronic crimes, but is actually being used to curb free expression online, the rules regarding social media clearly aim at enabling the state to exert more control on online content and communication between social media users instead of protecting citizens against online harm,” he said.
The PBC vice chairman said requiring social media platforms to register themselves, set up local offices and servers and adhere to local laws would ultimately result in massive online censorship of cyberspace. “Therefore, the PBC rejects the proposed draconian regulations aimed at hampering social media platforms where over 60 million Pakistanis exercise their constitutional right to freedom of expression under Article 19 and the right to information under Article 19-A.”
The Bar Council called upon the government to reverse these draconian rules as such measures hurt the nation in the guise of regulation of social media discourse.
The PBC urged all political parties represented in the Senate, National Assembly and the provincial assemblies to resist these proposals.
Otherwise, the nation’s enforced silence will extend to people’s representatives sitting in parliament, the media as well as the bar and the bench.
Qalb-e-Hassan, the Supreme Court Bar Association’s president, lambasted the government for its “undue and unjustified restrictions” upon the press outlets.
“The SCBA is of the firm belief that there is no concept of real democracy without free and fair functioning of media as it always plays a pivotal role and is considered to be the fourth pillar of state,” he said.
The role of Pemra since the assumption of office by the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf is debatable and questions about its neutrality are undermining it, Mr Hassan added.
Prohibitions on the press and the electronic media stop intellectual growth and harm society, Qalb-e-Hassan observed.
“The legal fraternity will resist any attempt to snatch the right to freedom of speech, which is fundamental right guaranteed in our constitution,” the SCBA president said.