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Freedom on the Net: PTA rejects Pakistan report

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Herald Report

Islamabad, Nov 30: The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the electronic and digital media watchdog, has written a letter to Freedom House, contesting the findings of its country report on “Freedom on the Net” on Pakistan, dubbing it biased and one-sided. However, the Islamabad High Court had recently restrained the digital and electronic media watchdog from blocking online content without rules, writes Hija Kamran on Digital Rights Monitor website which is a part of Media Matters for Democracy’s Report Digital Rights initiative.

In the absence of such rules and prior hearing of the respondents, PTA can not block arbitrarily online contents or websites, held the IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah in his landmark judgment on a petition filed by the Awami Workers Party (AWP), a left-wing political party, challenging the blockage of its website. The site was blocked weeks before 2018 general elections and restored on the IHC order in September 2019.

The FoTN 2019 report concluded Pakistan’s score at 26 out of 100, one rank lower than the previous year’s 27/100 score, and the status to be ‘Not Free’ for the ninth consecutive year, writes Ms Kamran, who is project manager at the MMfD.

“Internet freedom declined during this report’s coverage period due to authorities’ increased blocking of political, social, and cultural websites,” the report had stated

In its letter to Freedom House, PTA rejects the findings of the report calling it ‘non-inclusive’, and claims ‘Pakistan has been portrayed unfairly in the report’. The letter further states that the report seems heavily biased and one-sided, and doesn’t take into account the Authority’s perspective, states Ms Kamran.

In the eight points that follow, PTA lists its counter-narrative in response to the report, she states. The authorities justify the need for network shutdown, content blocking, blanket monitoring of online content, abrupt changes in telecom renewal policies, crackdown on anonymous accounts and connections, while repeatedly mentioning the authority respects freedom of expression as a fundamental right of the people of Pakistan, Mr Kamran notes.

The full text of the letter by PTA can be found here.

It is important to note that while the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 gives PTA the power to block online content under section 37, it does so under the set of rules that PTA has been ordered to formulate in the recent judgment by the Islamabad High Court (IHC). In the absence of these rules, the blocking of any website in the ambit of ‘unwanted’ is in violation of the due process, and PTA is not empowered to do so without hearing the other party.

While PTA dismisses FoTN 2019 report’s findings with regards to Pakistan saying it only portrays one side of the situation, PTA has been ordering censorship without issuing notices to or hearing the content creators and/or the websites that were being blocked, essentially exercising what they are now rejecting.

The letter further denies the claim of 800,000 websites being blocked including political, religious, and social content, and states that 830,000 websites links were in fact blocked for pornographic content. However, there are multiple instances of arbitrary blocking of content in the name of the content being immoral, she claims. While the list of 830,000 websites is not publicly available, instances in the past suggest that a lot of legitimate content also gets blocked because of this blanket censorship. For example, an e-commerce startup website was blocked in 2013 when the authorities banned certain keywords in attempts to block pornographic content, resulting in the startup facing significant business and financial loss.

Furthermore, PTA’s rejection of blocking political content to stifle dissent in the country undermined the struggles of the grassroots political party, argues Ms Kamran.

Reports like the Freedom on the Net are not intended to undermine the efforts of the governments and their agencies, but to point them towards the right direction of upholding citizens’ rights enshrined under the Constitution and international human rights treaties, she maintains.

In addition, PTA has also mentioned in the letter that the Web Monitoring System (WMS) being deployed by the authority to monitor online content is being done as per the powers vested on them under PECA, and the system will only be used to identify grey traffic on the internet, while rejecting reports of surveillance on citizens.

A recent report by a Coda Story found that PTA has taken the services of Canadian surveillance firm Sandvine, to deploy equipment for WMS to monitor internet traffic in Pakistan. Sandvine has been in the news multiple times to facilitate authoritarian governments around the world to spy on citizens. The appointment of such a company only reflects the intention of infringing people’s right to privacy and surveil on citizens.

Moreover, the letter also rejects the claims of denial of internet connectivity around elections of 2018, adding that data services were temporarily suspended for a short period of time for security reasons. It’s important to highlight that there is no evidence, research or events in modern times which suggest that network shutdowns and disruptions contribute effectively towards conflict management, resolution, or avoidance. Instead, they only create a sense of confusion among citizens in the absence of access to information and means of communication, Ms Kamran contends.

She recalls that on November 25, 2017, during the nationwide protests that erupted from the Faizabad protest in Islamabad, all broadcast TV channels and social media websites were blocked throughout the country, resulting in chaos among citizens who did not have credible means to verify news sent to them. This chaos and confusion lead to concerned citizens worried about the safety and security of their family, friends, and property, and ultimately leading the entire population towards believing unverified and possible misinformation.

Violating citizens’ right to access and information in the name of security while it does not protect citizens from subsequent violence, it only promotes censorship, abuse of power, control on the flow of information, and infringement of constitutional rights, Ms Kamran argues.

While we commend PTA’s effort to provide clarity and response to the findings of the report, it’s also important for the authorities to acknowledge the actions and orders they pass to curtail freedom of expression in the country. Reports like the Freedom on the Net are not intended to undermine the efforts of the governments and their agencies, but to point them towards the right direction of upholding citizens’ rights enshrined under the Constitution and international human rights treaties, she concludes.

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