“Regulation by social media companies is an added layer of censorship”
Night Dad — Executive Director, Digital Rights Foundation
Social media regulation of human rights defenders is on the rise in Pakistan but what’s more surprising is that social media companies are censoring content without any proper explanation. As someone who has worked on the law, I’ve seen how vague the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) can be, hence prone to misinterpretation, making individuals extremely vulnerable online. Regulation by social media companies seems like an added layer of unnecessary censorship, further curtailing the freedom of expression.
With more cases springing about social media accounts being banned online, it is becoming apparent that these companies are withholding the democratic rights of certain individuals — especially those actively challenging the ‘popular narrative’ — and restricting their free speech online.
Under PECA, the accused is afforded all the usual safeguards under criminal law in order to ensure a fair trial. That being said, there are a number of difficulties they can face at different stages, especially during the pre-trial investigation. There have been cases where social media accounts of political dissenters or activists have been blocked without confirmed evidence of their link to an alleged illegal activity. Also, lack of clarity in legal provisions, particularly those regulating ‘hate speech’ or ‘anti-state content,’ puts the defendants at a disadvantage at the outset. Cyber terrorism is another example of a vaguely defined crime where fair trial rights may be curbed on the basis of national security.
The online harassment that women face is not only from state actors but also from the audience, political parties, non-state actors, fellow journalists and personal contacts. However, as women do not traditionally occupy online spaces, the harassment they face is usually of a sexualised and gendered nature. This makes any crackdown all the more dangerous for women as they can start exercising self-censorship to a greater extent, further reducing their voice on digital platforms.
The law also has some overambitious clauses without proper means for the law enforcement agencies to pursue these clauses, since the resources to these institutions are limited. The law directly favours the state which is evident in all the sections. The law also gives unreasonable powers to the law enforcement agencies with no transparency and accountability of them, which is why it does violate our fundamental constitutional rights of free speech.