By Brett Wilkins

Many journalists and digital rights activists in Pakistan and beyond are decrying a new social media law passed by the government that critics say could be used to crack down on free speech and dissent.

The Pakistani federal cabinet recently passed the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020. The law, which was passed in secret and without public consultation, requires any company operating social a media platform in Pakistan to register there and open an office in Islamabad, the capital, within three months. The law creates the post of National Coordinator, who will be tasked with enforcing the new rules and regulating social media companies, which will also be required to appoint representatives in Pakistan to deal with the coordinator. Furthermore, the new regulations compel companies to operate data servers in Pakistan with one year.

Some of the most controversial parts of the law force social media companies to assist law enforcement access user data and remove content the government says is illegal. Companies that fail to comply will be blocked. Some have also questioned whether the law can be implemented without parliamentary approval. The government claims that since the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications has included the new regulations in the 2016 Pakistan Electronic Communications Act, they do not require parliamentary approval.

Ministry of Information Technology chief Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui told Al Jazeera that the new rules would help “identify and weed out unwanted and slanderous online content.” The law specifically identifies content that promotes “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security.”

“We needed to do it to uphold the integrity, decency and respect of individuals and sanctity of institutions,” Siddiqui added.

Digital rights advocates in Pakistan and beyond have slammed the new rules. “The worrying part for me is that the definition around extremism, religion or culture is so wide and ambiguous and that means they have these unfettered power to call any online content illegal or extremist or anti-state,” Nightat Dad, who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, told Reuters. Dad added that women, ethnic and religious minorities would be particularly vulnerable to abuses of the new law.

“These stringent but vague rules approved by Pakistan’s federal cabinet threaten the ability of journalists to report the news and communicate with their sources,” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit group. “The cabinet should immediately reverse course and seek broad consultations with legislators and civil society, including the media, on how to proceed with any such regulations.”

The new law comes amid allegations that the administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to intimidate and silence opponents, partially by censoring the media. Numerous television stations have been taken off the air after airing content critical of the government, with authorities sometimes even terminating live interviews. The country’s influential military has also been accused of repressing free speech.

According to Vice News, Pakistan shut down the internet more times than any other country in the world save India in the years 2016-2018, with 19 such instances, compared to 154 in India and 8 in third-place Iraq.

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