Pakistan’s Authoritarian Internet Culture Stifles Speech

Once expected to connect individuals and give journalists new platforms to operate freely, services provided by social media and telecommunications companies in Pakistan have instead become tools for policing and limiting speech.

Pakistan’s telecommunications regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), has weaponized a 2016 cyber-crime law in order to restrict freedom of expression online and allow authorities to jail journalists.

The adoption of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) has riled digital rights activists and journalists, but the behavior of international tech giants, which are increasingly caving to government’s demands, is equally unsettling. It was under PECA that, in 2018, the PTA asked Facebook to remove links to a story published by Pakistan’s leading newspaper in which a politician criticized the local judiciary. Facebook complied with the request.

CEU students Ifra Asad and Mackenzie Nelson detail this incident and the government’s broader influence over media in their new report about technology, public sphere and journalism in Pakistan. “Media Influence Matrix: Pakistan” was released by the university’s Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) and Media Matters for Democracy, a policy research and advocacy think tank in Pakistan.

"With particularly low internet penetration rates, intense state censorship and heavy Chinese investment, Pakistan presents elements of an authoritarian internet culture where surveillance is a barely questioned norm, unless probed by civil society organizations or journalists," write Asad and Nelson in the report.

Internet penetration rates remain low in Pakistan, with less than 18% of the country’s population connected, according to some estimates. Women and those living in areas where the government restricts internet connectivity are particularly affected. Social media networks, however, are extremely popular; some 48% of internet users in Pakistan connect to social networks at least once a day, according to Gallup. Facebook and WhatsApp, a messaging application owned by Facebook, are the leading platforms.

Despite its popularity, Facebook is sharply criticized in Pakistan for its compliance with government requests and lack of transparency. Although Facebook publishes information about the number of government takedown requests it receives, the company withholds important information about the nature of these requests. WhatsApp has also come under scrutiny for its role in the proliferation of fake news and disinformation, a phenomenon with serious consequences for journalists and the general public.

Other technology companies have also failed the Pakistani public. Misinformation hashtags are promulgated with alarming swiftness on Twitter. Digital rights activists accuse the Norwegian-owned Telenor, the second largest telecommunications company in Pakistan by revenue, of double standards as it uses different privacy policies for Norway and Pakistan. Furthermore, China is exporting its regulatory model of surveillance to Pakistan.

In such a climate, self-censorship is rife. “Journalists have begun to self-censor out of threats to their lives,” according to the report. Media Matters for Democracy found in a survey last year that nearly 88% of Pakistan’s journalists self-censored. New technologies purported to help journalism thrive when they were first introduced. That has proven not to be the case in Pakistan.

 

This report is part of the Media Influence Matrix project run by CMDS through a global research and advocacy alliance, the Media and Power Research Consortium, which consists of more than 50 organizations, including academic institutions, advocacy groups, journalist networks and NGOs. The main goal of this project is to investigate the profound impact that rapid shifts in policy, funding and technology have on journalism today. Each country report consists of three studies, covering politics and policy, journalism funding and technology.The remaining two chapters on Pakistan, one covering policy and politics and one mapping the key sources of financing, are scheduled to be published later in 2019.