The news: Digital rights activists and civil society members, including more than 100 organizations and individuals, boycotted the committee formed to hold consultations regarding the cabinet-approved Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. In a press release on February 29, signatories, including Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), Bolo Bhi and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), stated that they will not participate in any consultations unless the cabinet suspends the Citizen Protection Rules approved on February 11.
Criticism: The activists are opposed to the selection of committee members as none of them include individuals from the civil society or digital media industry. The press release claims that the consultations are a “mere token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input”. The Executive Director of Institute of Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) Aftab Alam stated, “We fear that all social media apps will stop operating in Pakistan as Asian Internet Coalition (AIC) has said that it will be difficult to operate in Pakistan”. He further maintained, “Even if we would be invited for the consultations, it would only be eyewash. That is why we are demanding that the federal cabinet should withdraw approval of rules”.
‘Meant for protection’: On January 28, the Federal Cabinet of Pakistan approved a set of rules for social media regulations in the country that require digital media companies to register with the Pakistan government, open offices in Islamabad and block ‘objectionable and unlawful’ content. This was met with staunch disapproval from the onset, not only by the civil society and other stakeholders but also by the digital media giants that provide various social media platforms in the country. The rules were also challenged in the Islamabad High Court for contradicting the constitution of Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan last month said that these rules are not meant to restrict the freedom of expression of Pakistani citizens but to protect them.
The committee: Under the prime minister’s directions, the Ministry of Information Technology formed a committee to consult the civil society, digital media companies and other stakeholders regarding the regulation of online content without violating the digital rights of citizens. The committee is headed by PTA chairman Amir Azeem Bajwa, while other members include Additional Secretary of IT Eazaz Aslam Dar, PM Office Strategic Reforms Implementation Unit member Tania Aidrus and focal person on digital media Dr. Arslan Khalid. Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr. Shireen Mazari and Barrister Ali Zafar will also participate in the consultation process. The committee aims to reach an agreement after extensive consultation with all stakeholders within two months.