Islamabad, (June 12, 2020): The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 and the process of their notification is flawed as the government has not used the legal procedures as prescribed in the parent law. The centralization of excessive arbitrary powers in the position of National Coordinator is the biggest lacuna and again in contravention of the law; neither the position meets the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality; nor does it fulfill the proposition of legitimacy in a democracy.
Legal experts closely involved in the cases of digital rights; and the representatives of media and civil society raised these reservations at a virtual consultation organized by Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020.
Bytes for All has already raised its grave concerns surrounding the Rules which held implications for the social media users, corporate companies and the business communities. The consultation aimed at discussing the underlying issues in the Rules that need to be addressed by the Government of Pakistan before their approval and implementation.
The experts voiced their concerns over the hastily drafted Rules, which has many flaws and ambiguities with regards to its language, subjectivity and lack of clarity. The Rules are mostly viewed as a trend towards authoritarianism and a complete erosion of democratic principles. Collectively, all experts stressed against the appointment of the National Coordinator. The collective powers of the National Coordinator involve issuing orders, interpreting laws, restricting systems along with imposing penalties. These powers, if misused, can have far reaching consequences for the social media users with respect to their civil and political liberties that the National Coordinator is entitled to.
It is our grave concern that the centralization of powers beyond a certain limit will be proportional to curbing the freedoms that exist. In addition, experts believed that the registration of social media companies in Pakistan would adversely affect the business environment along with restricting the budding start-ups industry.
Unfortunately, minority communities are at a greater disadvantage of being a victim of the Rules’ misinterpretation. The legal and technical experts argued that the minorities especially Hindus, Ahmadis and Christian communities are more prone to hate speech online and different other laws have already been misused against them. In addition to the minorities, bloggers and freelancers who rely on social media are highly disadvantaged as well.
It is seen in many sections that curbs on freedom of speech and expression are made in the name of security. The languages in many sections of the Rules including the definitions are wide ranging and open to subjective opinions. Some experts were also of the opinion that the Rules have been made to create new offences which were not present previously in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 and Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996.
The consultation concluded with the recommendations, first of which is the removal of the National Coordinator’s position; instead, a committee must be shaped which should include representatives of lawyers, media professionals, bloggers and civil society organizations. In this way, plurality of experts will bring subjective perspectives in relevance to a particular case. This would also promote a lack of authoritarian judgment.
The government should also be clear in identifying the relevant stakeholders whose opinion must be taken with regards to the rules. In addition, a staunch transparency and oversight mechanism must be kept in place to monitor the operationalization of the coordinator.
The public and experts involved in the relevant fields must advocate online for the reversal of these rules along with educating the masses about its nature. Opinion must be mobilized to ensure that public pressure is created. The experts also called for a unified body of experts to raise their issues at the policy level along with a self-regulation of the media community.
The experts believed that though regulation is welcomed, however, it must be defined within the permissible limit of international human rights law, and must not be used to clampdown online expressions. As a prior commitment, there must be laws and policies devised for data privacy and protection in the first place, and then comes the consideration of social media regulation in accordance to the principles of ‘transparency and remediation’, ‘due process and standards of legality’ and ‘necessity and legitimacy’.
The narrative also included the inclusion of parliamentary committees and the domestication of international human rights laws such as the ICCPR so that the Rules can be seen in a more reasonable manner. The consultation was concluded with the recommendation that the government should completely write off these Rules along with making subsequent amendments in the parent laws, including PECA and PTA Act.
The participants of the consultation included Yasser Latif Hamdani, Zeeshan Hashmi, Haider Imtiaz, Umer Gilani, Usama Khawar, Raza ur Rehman Asad, Mary James Gill, Chaudhry Muhammad Shafiq, Hassan Belal Zaidi, Shahzada Zulfiqar, Naumana Suleman, Shahzad Ahmad and Haroon Baloch.