OPINION: Is Blocking People Online Unfair? Pakistan’s Ruling Party Thinks It Is

October 21, 2021 – The ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) asks people to inform them if they have been “unfairly” blocked by journalists, through its Twitter account on Thursday. The post says, “We have received a lot of feedback from folks who have been blocked unfairly by journalists for asking questions (no abuse or harsh language at all).” The post further goes on to add that, “we will request journalists to unblock you #QuestioningIsNotHarassment.”

The post comes after a day-long organized social media campaign against senior journalist and columnist Asma Shirazi in response to her op-ed in BBC Urdu on 19 October. Ultimately the article led to her widespread criticism, spearheaded by the ruling party’s own official Twitter account that also posted a video of Shirazi interviewing ousted ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “Dear Asma Shirazi, how do you explain this much obedience to a Certified Chor and Absconder?,” the tweet at PTI’s official account stated.

Two things are no secret to any Pakistani: Tehreek-e-Insaf’s impeccable social and digital media acumen, and its long-standing feud with a now-beleaguered media that the ruling party has often portrayed as having a one-point agenda to defame and falsely ridicule the government. Or, to “express the enemy’s stance,” as one tweet read in 2019, while adding, “Media houses & journalists must take care that in their quest for criticism on State, they intentionally or unintentionally do not end up propagating enemy’s stance,” with the hashtag #JournalismNotAgenda.

In December 2020, two of PTI’s official Twitter accounts even went as far as posting and then deleting an entire list of what they called “journalists supporting the corrupt.”

Today’s tweet regarding and against “unfair blocking by journalists” may also be particularly interesting because as far as the concept of blocking goes, this may be a first suggestion of its kind: that the act of a user blocking someone on the internet has certain standards attached to it and that there is a particular code of ‘fairness’ that individuals must adhere to when choosing to block someone. Surely the government must also then believe that a certain standard of fairness also applies to its social media team that was, at one time, almost solely credited for bringing the party to power.

Social media giants, including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, often take down posts that their algorithms flag in violation of preset community guidelines, but these are computer codes designed for the sole purpose of not letting certain pieces of information, communicated or expressed in a particular manner, to remain published. It is not uncommon to see users complaining of their posts being removed unfairly.

It may come as little surprise and rather comical, even, that the ruling party’s official Twitter account suggests that certain individual internet users have made unfair use of a function whose fundamental application is to protect the rights and safety of internet users. One may argue that just one carefully planned social media campaign against an individual by a state-run digital channel violates more rights than by users simply blocking each other.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has on a number of occasions expressed grave concern over the PTI’s ‘near-dictatorial’ media policies. Most recently, in September 2021, when the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance bill hit the house floor, the RSF said, “[The PMDA bill] carries seeds of a centralised censorship office, typical of the worst authoritarian regimes” and that the PMDA is “utterly incompatible with a democratic system.” Surely the PTI government does not believe it is undemocratic of journalists to block users on their personal social media handles?

Pakistani media is no stranger to brazen criticism, censorship and authoritarian-like control, by whoever happens to be ruling over the country, as Hamid Mir pointed out after the 2020 Tweet published lists of good and bad journalists, “I don’t take such tweets seriously. Previous governments did the same. The PML-N and PPP regimes used to call me a friend of Imran Khan, and now the exact same thing is happening in reverse.”

Moaz Ahmed Bhangu has 5 years of experience as a digital media strategist and documentary filmmaker. He is a Program Manager for MIL and Media Development at MMFD.

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