Blocking of websites, network shutdowns and increase of disinformation have resulted in a decline of Internet freedom in Pakistan since last year, as found by Freedom of the Net 2019, a report published by Freedom House.
This year’s report ranks Pakistan 26 out of 100, a drop from last year’s score of 27 and has declared the country “Not free” in terms of freedom and access of Internet usage in the country. Among the key developments, the report highlights network shutdowns ahead of the 2018 General Elections, blocking of websites such as Awami National Party’s website, bots created to influence the elections, increasing government monitoring of social media and threats and physical attacks on journalists and activists.
“The Internet in Pakistan is increasingly being used as an alternate medium to share information and by dissenting political voices. As censorship in mainstream media grows, the government is looking for ways to control this alternate information resource,” says Sadaf Khan, Director Programs and Co-Founder of Media Matters for Democracy, a non-profit working on media development and digital rights in Pakistan. She says the decrease in Pakistan’s Internet freedom ranking is not a surprise. She adds, “I think we will see further regression in the way the State is looking at the Internet and trying to control it.”
Sadaf Khan says the report proves that civil society and digital rights activists need to work together to push for a “more progressively regulated Internet in Pakistan.”
Obstacles to Access
The report has scored Pakistan 5 out of 25 in terms of access to Internet. Despite an increase of 10 million broadband connections in the country, many people in rural and under-developed parts of the country still do not have access to Internet. The report also highlighted the digital divide, and the monitoring of digital activities of women within their homes.
The frequent disruption of telecommunication services during protests, holidays, elections and religious gatherings also limits access. The report also noted irregular changes in the telecom policies that make it harder for telecom companies to operate, and the concerns related to transparency and independence of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) as a regulatory body for the Internet.
Limits on content
Pakistan ranked 14 out of 35 in terms of limitations of online content, according to the report. The report cited blocking of AWP and Voice of America’s Urdu and Pashto websites as examples of content getting blocked without any reason. Social media websites Twitter and Facebook also complied with the government to remove content which was allegedly blasphemous, defamatory or containing hate speech. The report also noted PTA’s failure to issue notices before blocking websites or content.
Disinformation was rampant during the reporting period, aided by “troll armies” who spread false information, such as about journalists, under coordinated hashtag campaigns on Twitter. Government surveillance caused journalists to self-censor, therefore limiting content.
Violation of user rights
In terms of violation of Internet user’s rights, Pakistan ranked 7 out of 40 in the report. Journalists and activists have continued to face intimidation and threats due to their online expression, the report found. During the reporting period, journalists and activists were abducted and physically attacked. The report also cited examples of online violence directed at women, such as in the aftermath of the Aurat March in 2019, which restricted their online activities.
Hacking and data breaches also violated users’ right to privacy and intensified the danger of operating in Pakistan’s digital spaces, found the report.