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March 06, 2017 - Comments Off on Fake News, Obscenity, and Cyber Harassment: February ’17

Fake News, Obscenity, and Cyber Harassment: February ’17

February 2017 wasn't an easy ride for digital rights here in Pakistan. As we still await one of the five missing bloggers to return home, the law enforcement has been busy taking away citizens' rights to speak online under the draconian laws, poor journalism ethics ruled the TV screens and caused chaos in the country, and Digital Rights Foundation's Cyber Harassment Helpline completed its 3 months of operation. Here's a round up of the incidents that had out attention!

Samar Abbas: Still Missing

While it came to light at the end of January that 4 of the missing activists had returned home, Samar Abbas still missing remains missing. Samar’s disappearance has been linked to the series of enforced disappearances of activists and bloggers at the start of January--Samar was reported missing 11th January, 2017. Given the lack of information by the state authorities and the returned activists themselves, there is no clarity on why the activists were picked up or the reason Samar in particular remains missing.

Samar’s wife, Najamus Sahar, has spoken about the emotional toll the disappearance has taken on her family.

IMG-20170112-WA0030 (1)

In a petition directed at the missing bloggers, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, through a single bench at the Islamabad High Court, ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block pages or websites containing blasphemous material on social media. It is unclear how this order will be interpreted by the PTA. Furthermore, if the PTA chooses to follow the order what criteria is being used to determine content as blasphemous? While the PTA is at it, it would be great it they can also remove material containing hate speech against minorities and marginalised communities.

The Trend of Fake News and its Aftermath

The term “fake news” has been weaponised by the current US president to target any news outlet that dares to fact-check him, however it has also become a referential point of analysis for pervasive news items and rumours that are demonstratively wrong, yet are still shared on social media and even picked up by the mainstream media. In times of mass confusion and lack of trust in official statements, fake news can become an agent of panic and paranoia. In the aftermath of the Lahore Defence bomb blast/cylinder explosion (there is still no clarity on which of these is fake news), panic gripped the streets of Lahore as social media, mainstream news channels and WhatsApp groups were inundated by the news of a bomb blast in Gulberg. 31 news channels were initially served a notice by PEMRA in the wake of this incident, out of which 29 news channels are fined and asked to air an apology on March 6th, 2017 between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM in the same magnitude as the fake news was aired.

PEMRA Apology notice

For more clarity on fake news and how to counter it, read Hija Kamran’s post “F is for Fake News!” for DRF here.

Arrest of Nasir Khan Jan and "Obscenity" as a tool for Censorship

Social media celebrity Nasir Khan Jan is known for his videos and covers. However on 8th February, 2017 was arrested and detained by the Police on grounds of “obscenity”. While he was granted bail by a lower court in Lower Dir on 11th February, 2017, his case has been referred to the Cyber Crime Wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).


The police has informed the media that he was arrested under Section 107 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which deals with “instigation” of others. It is unclear what exactly the police are accusing Nasir Khan Jan of doing. This is a clear violation of his right to freedom of expression in online spaces and a case in which the vague terminology of obscenity is being used to intimidate online personalities.

Read DRF’s statement condemning the arrest here.

Cyber Harassment Helpline completes in third month!

DRF’s Cyber Harassment Helpline has marks 3 months of successful operations. Launched on 1st December, 2017, the Helpline has handled over 358 complaints in the short span of its operations. The Helpline Team hopes to expand and improve its services and outreach. Several innovative approaches towards outreach have already been taken.

The detailed report on the Cyber Harassment Helpline's first 3 months will be launched in coming days.


February 20, 2017 - Comments Off on F is for Fake News!

F is for Fake News!

During the US Presidential elections, it was claimed that fake news on Facebook may have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Even though the claim was denied and called ‘crazy’ by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, there’s a great chance that it is correct to some extent, if not entirely. According to a survey conducted in 26 countries including US and UK, 51% people who have access to the internet use social media as their primary source of information and particularly news - Facebook being the most prominent source. With the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria incident where a man open fired at the restaurant to what he said ‘self-investigation’ for pedophilia claims against the owner of the pizzeria, it’s pretty much evident that fake news does influence people and makes them act as they perceive it.

While it’s not the only case where supposed fake news goes viral, there have been quite a lot of hoax news and stories throughout the last two years that the word ‘post-truth’ (an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals) made it to Oxford Dictionaries in 2016, even though the word was first used in 1992.

Pakistan has not been left out of the whole ‘fake news’ trend. Back in 2013, Mubashir Luqman - a national TV host - on his live TV show ‘Khara Sach’ alleged that Lahore Grammar School (LGS), a private and leading school in Punjab, was converting its students to other religions and had supposedly excluded the subject “Islamiat” from the curriculum. In response to these allegations on a national TV, the principal of the concerned branch of LGS was forced to release a statement on the school’s official Facebook page where she stated,

Our institution believes in inculcating values such as tolerance and empathy in all our students. ‘Comparative religion’ is essentially a ‘history of religion’. It is NOT merely comparing religions; we aim to educate about Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism – and their fundamental teachings. Doing so, we believe, will enlighten our students about the importance of ‘peaceful coexistence.”

This was a glaring example of poor journalism without fact-checks or thorough investigation. Despite the school’s clarifications, the news went viral and several Facebook pages used it to attack progressive educational institutes. For instance, this Facebook page with over 100,000 followers, posted a now-deleted viral image that equated other religions with satanic beliefs.

Fake news has also resulted in diplomatic tensions escalating. In December 2016, the Defense Minister of Pakistan Khawaja Muhammad Asif threatened Israel of nuclear attack in reaction to the fake news he read on Twitter.

"Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh.Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too AH" — Khawaja M. Asif (@KhawajaMAsif) Dec. 23, 2016

Apparently, Asif was reacting to a fake story published by The article which was uploaded on December 20th wrongly attributed the statements to the Former Defense Minister of Israel, Moshe Yaalon.

@KhawajaMAsif The statement attributed to fmr Def Min Yaalon re Pakistan was never said” — Ministry of Defense (@Israel_MOD) Dec. 24, 2016

@KhawajaMAsif reports referred to by the Pakistani Def Min are entirely false” — Ministry of Defense (@Israel_MOD) Dec. 24, 2016

Earlier in January 2017, five bloggers and activists went missing in Pakistan, in what is believed to be forced disappearances. While the reason of their kidnapping is still unknown, a smear campaign against the bloggers was launched by right wing groups, and their followers. One of the most influential scholars and live TV host Amir Liaquat Hussain joined into this irresponsible behaviour by accusing them of blasphemy. It’s important to note that in an Islamic state like Pakistan, blasphemy is a criminal offence and the punishment is either death or imprisonment for life.

Section 295 C of the Blasphemy Law states,

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Once those prominent and powerful in media endorsed the allegations, the public was quick to jump on the bandwagon and there was a widespread belief that the missing bloggers had committed blasphemy. The vicious campaign forced the families, who were already going through the trauma of losing their loved ones, to deny the allegations. The families were of the view that the blasphemy allegations were meant to divert the attention from their disappearance.

These accusations weren’t limited to just bloggers but were extended to human rights defenders too. Amir Liaquat Hussain alleged Muhammad Jibran Nasir, who is a frontline human rights activist, of profanity. The allegations, again, were made on a live TV show where thousands of people were watching (subsequently shared online as well) who believed what Hussain, who happens to be the scholar, said. These false proclamations of serious nature not only endanger the accused but also the ones related to them. As a result, Nasir who was in the forefront demanding immediate recovery of the missing bloggers filed a complaint of defamation against Hussain to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). The Authority, after the pressure of civil society and citizens who complainedc, banned Amir Liaquat Hussain’s show ‘Aisa Nahi Chalay Ga’ on BOL News.

On February 14, 2017, Hadiqa Kiani - an iconic singer of Pakistan - was accused of being arrested at the London Heathrow Airport for possessing cocaine worth 80,000 British Pounds. The singer immediately slammed the rumours by posting a photo with her son and mother on her twitter account,

“Photo taken TODAY in Lahore with my mother and son! Cannot believe how this FAKE London news has been spread” - Hadiqa Kiani (@Hadiqa_Kiani) - February 14, 2017

She also responded to one of the tweets directed to her to confirm the news with,

completely false. I dare anyone to associate drugs with my name. Don't believe me, contact U.K. authorities” - Hadiqa Kiani (@Hadiqa_Kiani) - February 14, 2017

Not only does misinformation spread via social media forums like Facebook and Twitter, but people also receive messages on WhatsApp and other messaging apps that can’t be verified by the average citizen, and hence there is a tendency to believe the said message. After the recent bomb blast in Lahore on February 13, 2017, security alerts started making rounds on WhatsApp claiming that the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) - the media wing of Pakistan Army - has declared security high alert in the major cities of Pakistan.

Another ‘notification’ attributed to ISPR, circulated via WhatsApp, asks the receiver to not respond to any call or SMS from a number mentioning either #90 or #09 as it could take their cellular network SIM card in their control and use it for malicious activities like bomb blasts.

Fake News 1

Now the worrying part here is that once attributed to the defense forces, people tend to believe the message and goes viral without any fact-checking and without verifying the source of information. Law Enforcing Agencies (LEAs) don’t disseminate sensitive and classified information in public and the security threats are usually dealt with on an official level. The news can be ‘leaked’ but the security breaches in the systems and communications of military forces aren’t very common. Here, it’s also important for the people to take informed decision to trust or ignore the news by pondering over a few simple questions, 1) Is the source reliable? 2)  Have you heard of this source before? 3) Can this news be verified by a more reliable source, say a reputed media outlet or journalist? 4) Is it humanly and technically possible for the classified information to make its way in the mainstream media and in public? 5) Are there any tags like ‘Satire’ or ‘Parody’ associated with the news?


According to a research study, fake news spreads more drastically than the stories that debunk them. Social media plays an important part in making or breaking the reputation of any person or organisation, and the consequences could sometimes be life-threatening. Poor journalism and spreading of rumours play a pivotal role in what is believed to be character assassination on the basis of personal biases.

Paid reviews and contributions by supposedly reputed media outlets or individuals add to the culture of fake news. A lot of times, these said individuals and outlets endorse a service or a product, or just a story in return of monetary advantages. These reviews are not harmful if the reader is informed about its sponsored nature but often times people tend to uncritically follow the advice of the endorser. This practice is very common particularly in tech industry and the beauty industry where a blogger posts reviews which are not necessarily honest.

As a nation and due to our enshrined differences, we tend to believe anything that’s been said under quotation marks and in bold attributed to a famous or historical person. Often times, it has been seen that anything attributed to a reputed organisation is taken as an absolute truth when in fact the reality could be otherwise. This doesn’t only affect a normal person or a group of people, but also harms the reputation of the organisation in question.

The websites or outlets that share fake news live off the revenue generated by the ads on their webpages. The most ridiculous or outrageous the story, the more it attracts people to the website, either to get more details and post even more outrageous comments under the fake news, or to satisfy their curiosity and bash the source later. Again, Facebook’s algorithm is the most crucial tool to promote the news by classifying it ‘most popular’. The more people click, share, comment, or react to the post, the more it’s shared with people and goes viral. Hence, more money for the owner of the content.

It’s essential that as agents of disseminating news, journalists, media outlets, and other individuals and organisations who are believed to be opinion-changers and influencers invest in responsible journalism and research what they share with the listeners and readers. Strong fact-checking mechanisms need to be developed before something becomes mainstream and goes viral.

Furthermore, it’s also important to engage with the government and non-governmental bodies, working on the well-being of the society and its people, to request - and if necessary, force - them to be more transparent in their actions. This is important for two reasons, a) because this way dissemination of fake news will be harder, and b) people will be able to fact-check themselves once the mechanisms are developed and advocated.

Remember: Everything you see or read isn’t true. There’s a chance it’s edited to satisfy someone’s personal biases. Always fact-check what you see. Additionally, here’s a list of pointers by wikipedia to identify good source and bad source on the internet. Interestingly, 10 points for Wikipedia to honestly classify itself as bad source.

Here’s how an informed decision can be taken to either believe or reject the news/claim, courtesy of - a real time rumour tracker.

Author: Hija Kamran

February 20, 2017 - Comments Off on Social Media & “Obscenity” in Pakistan

Social Media & “Obscenity” in Pakistan

Nasir Khan Jan is a social media celebrity and v-logger who rose to fame because of his off-key covers of songs and awkward photo shoots. However on 8th February, 2017 he was arrested by the KPK Police on charges of “obscenity”.

His home was raided, and he was humiliated in front of his family and neighbours. He was subjected to the fear and distress of finding himself suddenly labelled a criminal, and grappling with the threat of judicial proceedings. It was not until his bail was posted by the admin of another Facebook page that the ordeal ended, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, another nightmare awaited him as he returned home only to find someone had photographed him while he was handcuffed in police custody and the pictures had gone viral, leading to another barrage of derogatory and mocking attacks, adding to the psychological burden of this trauma. Nasir was further told by both the detaining authorities and commenters on social media that if he wishes to avoid a repeat of the same incident, he should stop making videos in which he does “immoral” activities such as “dancing” and singing.

But who decided what constitutes obscene and immoral? The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA)  gives authorities broad powers to remove content that is against “decency or morality” (refer to section 37 of the Act)  but what is the objective, legally-applicable definition of such subjective terms? It is unclear exactly which section was used to arrest Khan Jan, however section 294 of the Pakistan Penal Code could possibly have been used. Section 294 states that:

Obscene acts and songs: Whoever, to the annoyance of others, -- (a) does any obscene act in any public place, or (b) sings, recites or utters any obscene songs, ballad or words, in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.”

How do we decide the limits of morality and immorality? Whose narratives of the same are imposed through the criminalisation of activities such as singing, dancing, and personal v-logging? Why are these types of content prompt punitive action while pages promoting hate speech, sectarianism, violence against women and various minorities, or increasing religious extremism are tolerated?

DRF is unequivocally against the actions taken by these law enforcement authorities supposedly at the behest of an as-yet unknown complainant and stands in support of Nasir Khan Jan as well as all digital citizens engaged in the creating content that empowers the growth of New Media. We see these actions as a clearcut part of an ongoing and disturbing pattern of criminalising, harassing, and silencing individual voices online.

Our stance is fourfold:

  • Nasir Khan Jan's arrest and subsequent events are a grievous act of cyberbullying crossing the boundary between “digital” and “physical” by permitting harassers to have their victim arrested, publicly humiliated online as well as offline, and threatened with court proceedings for posting videos that they personally found “immoral”. This sets a dangerous precedent for the extent and seriousness of cyberbullying and must not be allowed to slip by without resistance. All citizens are entitled to the same protections from the state; moral policing negates this right by making the state a stakeholder in upholding certain moral codes above others.

  • The contrast between Nasir Jan’s arrest and the impunity of pages belonging to banned terrorist outfits and violent sectarian groups highlights that this is a struggle for the right to public space that is ever shrinking and that must not ceded further.
  • The fact that Nasir’s privacy was further compromised and his leaked pictures continued to force him to relive this event even though he was granted bail, and even though his “alleged crime” was in the nebulous and legally ill-defined territory of “obscenity”, and despite the fact that in the eyes of the law we are all deemed innocent until proven guilty. This infers that the government of Pakistan is not adequately equipped to handle arrested suspects’ right to privacy while in police custody. It also points towards a lack of sufficient oversight on part of the state to ensure the responsible implementation of its own laws. This casts a shadow over its commitment to uphold the digital safety and rights of its citizens, ostensibly one of the primary reasons why the PECA was passed.
  • The members of the law enforcement authority that supposedly received this complaint also decided Nasir Khan Jan was guilty, and enacted punishment accordingly. This is a gross violation of human rights as well as digital rights. It cannot and must not be tolerated at any cost.

Nasir Khan Jan ’s arrest represents a violent escalation of threats to citizens’ post-PECA’ digital rights in an increasingly interconnected world. It raises deep issues of the breaking divide between “online” and “offline” and shows us clearly how non-normative personalities, presentations, and people are disproportionately at risk from not only online vigilantes but also organs of the state.

February 08, 2017 - Comments Off on Internet Freedom, Public Threats, and the Year Ahead

Internet Freedom, Public Threats, and the Year Ahead

January 2017 was one eventful month at Digital Rights Foundation. From protests for and return of the missing activists to hate speech by an acclaimed TV host on live television, from the launch of anti-harassment mobile application by Punjab Government to blocking of a satire website - DRF team has been busy at work throughout. And here's a round-up of all the activities that had our attention:

Missing Activists:

The month of January started out with the troublesome news that five activists had gone missing from Pakistan. Salman Haider (Islamabad), Ahmed Raza Naseer (Nankana), Ahmed Waqas Goraya (Lahore), Aasim Saeed (Lahore) and Samar Abbas (Karachi) all disappeared in the first month of the new year. The reason for their disappearance is still unclear but it is likely that they were targeted on the basis of their online speech. Civil society activists conducted protests all across Pakistan in the wake of these disappearances, and international pressure was also mounted on the government. Digital Rights Foundation also took part in the protest in Lahore.

IMG-20170112-WA0030 (1)By the end of January, reports surfaced that the missing activists had made contact with their families. There are several unanswered questions regarding the disappearances and many of the returned are reluctant to speak out about their ordeal. One of the activists had left the country following his release.

Another worrying aspect of these disappearances were the concerted social media campaigns to malign these missing activists, one that was backed up by the mainstream media and presenters, such as Amir Liaquat.

Amir Liaquat, Free Speech and PEMRA

Amir Liaquat is the host of the program “Aisa Nahi Chalay Ga” on Bol TV. In the month of January, has been accusing several activists and journalists of anti-Pakistani activities as well as levelling blasphemy charges against progressive voices.

After thousands of complaints from citizens, PEMRA (the regulatory agency for electronic media), issued an order banned Amir Liaquat’s appearance any TV channel:

PEMRA's Order to BOL TV

PEMRA's Order to BOL TV

Bol TV however did not immediately comply with PEMRA’s order and continued to air Amir Liaquat’s show despite the hate speech and incendiary content of his speeches.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has come down hard on Bol and the channel signed an undertaking pledging not to air Amir Liaquat’s show until further notice by the court.

Khabristan Times Blocked in Pakistan


Pakistan’s satire publication, Khabaristan Times (KT) has been blocked in Pakistan since January 25.

Digital Rights Foundation strongly condemned the ban in its official statement and stands in solidarity with the publication.


Statement by KT

Statement by KT

Initiatives by the Punjab Government

16684669_1189689211129997_672714307_nThe Punjab government launched its Women Safety Smart Phone Application. The app was launched on January 4, 2017 by the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) in collaboration with the Punjab Commission on Status of Women. This application allows allows users to send notifications to the Police Integrated Command, Control and Communication (PPIC3) if there is an incident of harassment and security forces will be dispatched to the location immediately. The application also allows users to mark places and locations as “unsafe”, which will help authorities in planning activities and other users as well.

Digital Rights Foundation attended the launch event for the application. We shall follow up with the developers and the authorities regarding our problems with permissions and privacy policies of the application. The fact that the application gains access to a lot of personal data as displayed in the permissions section, the onus is on the authorities to assure citizens about why the data is collected and how it is securely stored.
WhatsApp Image 2017-02-08 at 13.03.23 (1)WhatsApp Image 2017-02-08 at 13.03.23

The Punjab government also launched around 192 hotspots in three big cities of the province, including Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan. According to reports, in order to log in citizens will be required to given their name, date of birth, profession and mobile number. Digital Rights Foundation is also concerned about the information that this required for this service and the monitoring of online activity with users are logged into the service.

Internet Shutdown persists in FATA

Digital Rights Foundation was recently alerted to the fact that internet services in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been suspended since June 12, 2016. This denial of internet access to a large segment of Pakistan’s population has gone unexplained by the authorities, and DRF will continue to highlight the issue until services are adequately restored.
You can read our blog post on the issue here.

Safer Internet Day

DRF organized a workshop on account of international Safer Internet Day on the 7th of February in Beaconhouse School System Boys Branch. Seerat Khan, Jannat Fazal and Huda Jilani conducted the workshop with the enthusiastic secondary school students, which was based on cyberbullying and the safety measures children should adopt while using the internet. During the workshop, children also designed posters and wrote about how they felt about cyberbullying. The need of these workshops in schools was recognized and a survey was also conducted to understand the nature of cyberbullying in schools. DRF hopes to expand the project to more schools in the near future.

English Works opening ceremony in Karachi

16142511_10154272452578870_7361294837987059840_nOn January 18, 2017, Hija Kamran - Communications Manager at Digital Rights Foundation, spoke to the students at English Works opening ceremony - a six month English learning course - organised by Evolution in partnership with the U.S. Consulate General Karachi. During her talk, Hija emphasized on the importance and need of Women Rights in Digital Spaces, Cyber Harassment, and how to counter the said harassment. Along with this, Hija also discussed the harassment that Qandeel Baloch faced, and the harassment that 22 year old Naila Rind faces for three months which ultimately led her to commit suicide in her hostel room.

Seminar by Search for Justice - CAN Pakistan

Huda Jilani, Program Assistant at Digital Rights Foundation, was a speaker and panelist at a seminar conducted by Search for Justice (an initiative by CAN Pakistan) and the Social Work Department at Lahore College University for Women on January 18, 2017. The seminar focused on Online Harassment specifically in context of social media and ways and strategies to avoid it. Mr. Shahid Hassan, a representative of the FIA, was also a speaker at the event.

Harassment as a Legal Concept in Cyber Law

Shmyla Khan, the Project Head of Cyber Harassment Helpline at Digital Rights Foundation writes,
"Harassment, unfortunately, is a fact of life for many women in spaces other than the place of work. Most public spaces are hostile environments for women. It is for this reason that street harassment is also criminalised under section 509 the PPC in Pakistan. It comes as no surprise that cyber spaces are no different when it comes to the experience of women and minorities. Out of the 3027 cybercrime cases reported to the FIA during August 2014- August 2015, 45% involved electronic violence against women (e-VAW)."

Read the full article "Harassment as a Legal Concept in Cyber Law" here.


January 31, 2017 - Comments Off on Harassment as a Legal Concept in Cyber Law

Harassment as a Legal Concept in Cyber Law


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Harassment as a legal concept finds its origins in, and is deeply embedded in, the context of the workplace. This is not to say that harassment only takes place in those spaces, but simply because the concept was first articulated legally in the context of workplace discrimination and is thus finds its first formal articulation in the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010. This conception of harassment takes it as a form of sex discrimination. There are other articulations of harassment as well, such as a breach of privacy or an affront of dignity.

Harassment, unfortunately, is a fact of life for many women in spaces other than the place of work. Most public spaces are hostile environments for women. It is for this reason that street harassment is also criminalised under section 509 the PPC in Pakistan. It comes as no surprise that cyber spaces are no different when it comes to the experience of women and minorities. Out of the 3027 cybercrime cases reported to the FIA during August 2014- August 2015, 45% involved electronic violence against women (e-VAW).


Given the relative newness of online spaces and platforms, and their ever-evolving nature, cyber harassment as a concept has not been as well defined as its other counterparts in other spaces. Prior to the passing of the cybercrime bill, much of the anti-harassment work was being done by section 36 of the Electronic Transactions Ordinance, 2002 (ETO) relating to privacy of information. Privacy is an interesting jurisprudential lens to view anti-harassment legislation through. This currently is the approach taken in US jurisprudence through the developing field of the right to sexual privacy. However in order for cyber harassment to be effectively tackled through this legal paradigm, there needs to be developed jurisprudence around the right to privacy.

Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2015 (PECA, or the Cybercrime Act), section 21 (offences against modesty of a natural person or minor) and section 24 (cyber stalking) deal with the issue of online harassment. These laws, while a step in the right direction towards talking online violence seriously, are both overboard in their reach and inadequate in effectively tackling harassment in online spaces when taken at face value.

The laws have been widely criticised for the vague, and often careless, language that they contain. The definitions relating of modesty of natural persons are meant to capture non-consensual pornographic content. However over-reliance on concepts such as modesty and the explicit absence of the legal requirement of consent leaves something to be desired. Furthermore, cyberbullying legislation have faced many constitutional challenges in many other jurisdictions around the world—challenges being mounted mainly from a free speech and censorship point of view.[1] It is up to the interpreters of these laws, by cybercrime lawyers and designated judges, to develop jurisprudence that benefits the victims of these crimes without impacting free speech. The broad language of the sections can be reined in by thoughtful interpretation and reasoned discussion on the contours of free speech in a democratic society.

The definition of “cyber stalking” under section 24 of PECA covers a wide range of activity. Since this is a criminal statute, interpretations of the section need to guard against actions which do not rise to the level of criminal reprimand—a threshold that the text of the Act does not lay out itself. Furthermore, judges need to interpret the section with the true spirit of consent jurisprudence. This is particularly important when it comes to section 24(d) where even if the initial photograph or video was made with consent, it is the non-consensual distribution that needs to be criminalised. While non-consensual capturing of images should also be penalised in and of itself, the illegality of non-consensual distribution should operate independent of and decoupled from the capturing of the images.


When it comes to online harassment, there is a particular element of urgency given the reputational damage at stake and the possibility of duplication of information. This is where the procedural aspects of the law play a significant role in taking down content in a timely manner. Getting images removed from the internet is the immediate need of many complainants, and the PECA does not speak to this urgency. The aggrieved person can apply to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to remove images implicated by sections 21 and 24, however there is no mechanism in place to ensure that this happens before the reputational damage is done.

In the United States, removal of images is done through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 through a notice of copyright infringement. This is an interesting method to tackle online harassment, one not without its demerits. However again, given the dearth of case law and legal work around concepts of property in digital spaces it is unclear if such a mechanism is even feasible in Pakistan.


Returning to the concept of harassment in general, it would be useful to see the phenomenon of online harassment from the perspective of the right to equality. Just like harassment at the workplace is a form sex discrimination, it can be argued that given that harassment in cyber spaces mostly effects women and marginalised communities, it is a violation of their right to equal access to and enjoyment of the internet.[2] This conceptualisation is not found within the PECA, which is primarily a criminal statute, but a rights-based approach to digital rights needs to view online harassment as an issue of civil rights.


Lastly, another aspect of the law that is particularly egregious for victims of online harassment is the lack of anonymity in reporting instances of such activity. The humiliation of reliving the experience that the victim has been through and the indignity of turning in evidence, sometimes involving sexually explicit material, to predominantly male police officers and judges can be a traumatic process. Law enforcement agencies and the subsequent court system needs to be cognizant of these social and psychological aspects when investigating and adjudicating such cases—a consideration that should inform their legal analysis and judgment.


This legal note originally appeared in "Three Pillars" law magazine (January, 2017).



[1] Section 66A of the Indian the Information Technology Act, 2000 was struck down on grounds of violating free speech in the 2015 case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India.

[2] Danielle Citron, “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace”. Harvard University Press (2014).

January 31, 2017 - Comments Off on Internet on the Periphery

Internet on the Periphery



Protest against internet shutdowns.

Protest against internet shutdowns.

A population and territory that already belongs in the fringes of our imagination has receded from our digital spaces without most Pakistanis noticing. It may come as a shock to most of us that internet services in Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) have been suspended since June 12, 2016.


Meet Rahim Shah Shinwari, he tweets about the internet blackout in FATA nearly every day, compensating for the silenced digital voices from FATA. He highlighted the problems that the residents of FATA face in the face of this ban.



Digital spaces are increasingly coming under scrutiny and regulation all over Pakistan, however the complete shutdown of internet services in FATA points towards a different and worrisome form of policing and regulation.


We spoke to local journalist Rahat Shinwari as well who said that the ban has put “FATA back in the stone age”. He advocates for internet rights and has written about the issue in the Daily Ausaf:



The summer without Internet

The internet shutdown began on June 12, 2016 following the closing of the Pak-Afghan border after an incident of firing from the Afghan side on June 11, 2016. The authorities took immediate and disproportionate action by suspending mobile-based internet services in all the agencies of FATA: this includes 3/4G and portable internet devices—which constituted the primary sources of internet access in FATA given its availability and the fact that it was cheap (both in terms of rates and the lack of setting up costs: you only need a basic smartphone to use mobile internet). In wake of this shutdown, the only source of internet is PTCL broadband. According to our research, broadband connections formed less than 5% of the internet access in the area.

DRF has learnt that the process of shutdowns preceded June, 2016 and had begun intermittently as early as March of the same year. The shutdown was first experienced by the citizens of Bajaur and the regions bordering Afghanistan.


A short history of the internet

The internet arrived in FATA in 2005, but it proliferated properly after 2014. This is not the first time that the residents of FATA faced an internet shutdown. During the military operations in South Waziristan and other agencies in FATA, internet access was blocked from 2010 to 2012. In fact, during those years, even PTCL services were shutdown. However the sting of the shutdown has been felt more this time around given the explosion of the internet and introduction of 3/4G services by 2016.


An overwhelming majority of the users of internet in FATA are the younger generation. Nevertheless, based on interviews, internet usage was widespread in other age groups. Women were also using the internet in huge numbers on their mobile devices.


The internet was used to communicate with family members in other countries, such as workers in the Gulf States and students in Europe and the US. Businessmen were also taking advantage of the internet as a means of promotion and sales.

Importantly, the internet was also used for political engagement and awareness campaigns. FATA was not immune to trends all over the world, and the rise of citizen journalism and accessibility to e-newspapers meant that people were starting to question conventional narratives and hold public authorities accountable. The political campaign and mobilization against the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) took on a renewed fervour because of the internet. The political consciousness in digital spaces was such a concern that some political agents threated to take away internet privileges from the population if criticism of corruption by the authorities did not abate.


The internet was also the sole source of entertainment for much of the population. Owing to the fact that access to electricity is limited and subject to frequent shutdowns, many households run on solar panels where they do not own television sets and prefer to watch broadcasts on easy to charge mobile devices. Often times, the only way to watch a live cricket match—a national obsession—is through internet streaming services. It is a real tragedy that the residents in FATA are not able to watch live cricket matches in 2017!


Silence from the state

Since the shutdown there has been no official explanation for its persistence or any satisfactory justification regarding the denial of internet services to a significant portion of Pakistan’s population. The residents of FATA and youth groups such as the Khyber Youth Forum have raised questions, but their protests have been met with complete silence.


When individuals have approached the government, they have been told that the shutdown is a result of security concerns. This nebulous defence of “security” is a familiar one in Pakistan, particularly to the residents of FATA. Under the blanket rationality of security, internet services have been denied to all the agencies in FATA. Furthermore, the particular incident that led to the shutdown has long been addressed as peace was restored within a month of the shutdown.

It has also been asserted by the authorities that internet services have been banned because the internet was being used as a tool of propaganda by militants and terrorists. This reason employs the warped logic of heavy-handed governance. If the internet is used for propaganda, the solution is not a complete ban on the entire medium of communication and expression. If the government wants to counter extremist narratives, there are other ways to go about it rather than denying speech to an entire population. Furthermore, the internet can be used a propaganda tool in other parts of Pakistan as well, it is peculiar that FATA have to bear the brunt of this misuse. Furthermore, it is worrying that the entire region of FATA being seen as a homogenous with a uniform threat level, which echoes the logic of the FCR and colonial practice of collective punishment.

These reasons given by the government makes sense only when one considers this shutdown in the context of the history of FATA as a periphery region that has been denied equal rights under the Constitution of Pakistan and made subject to a repressive and colonial legal and political system since partition.




In wake of the internet showdown there is a gaping hole in terms of access to information and news. While the local media is working to fill in the gaps, even journalists in the area are seriously hindered in their ability to stay up to date and access sources without proper access to the internet.


The “internet café” culture from the 90s and early 2000s is returning to FATA, out of necessity rather than nostalgia. Enterprising dhabas have started to invest in internet broadband infrastructure, where one can use the internet at the rate of Rs. 50 per hour. This hefty amount means that internet access, when rarely available, is too expensive for a majority of the population. Furthermore, given the culture of public spaces and dhabas, these facilities are largely accessible exclusively to men given the cultural and gender norms of the area. Often times people have to travel great distances to simply use the internet; some students have to travel all the way to Peshawar just to fill out a job or university application. The burden of this internet shutdown is falling disproportionately on the young, women and financially disadvantaged.



With demands for the repeal of the FCR gaining momentum and the headway made by the FATA Reforms Committee, there is a definite push towards extending fundamental rights under the constitution to FATA. Digital rights need to be included as part of the proposed package of reforms for FATA. It is odd that on one hand that the government seeks to eliminate the oppressive regime of the FCR, and on the other is still denying basic internet services to FATA.

Digital rights activists also need to keep the regions on the periphery in mind when advocating for internet rights. While suspension of internet and mobile services for a single day in urban areas raises outrage, the continued and unjustified denial of services to the people of FATA has largely gone ignored by mainstream discourse.

January 31, 2017 - Comments Off on Pakistani internet censorship’s latest victim: Khabaristan Times

Pakistani internet censorship’s latest victim: Khabaristan Times

Khabaristan Times (KT), Pakistan’s version of The Onion, has been reportedly blocked in Pakistan since January 25.

On their Facebook page, KT stated that: “There hasn’t been any official notification from any regulatory authority regarding the website being banned, but it can’t be accessed anywhere in Pakistan.”


This is another instance of growing censorship in Pakistan. It follows the forced disappearances (and return) of bloggers that tackled difficult and controversial subjects. The noose around free speech continues to tighten everyday – to the extent that even a website dealing in satire wasn’t able to escape its grasp.

Pakistan has been repeatedly ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for reporters in the world. This is extremely relevant when you take into perspective the fact that KT had amassed several dozen writers, many of whom were journalists. Often the pieces on the website spoke truths that editorial policies would otherwise not allow in mainstream newspapers. For both the writers and the audience, KT became an outlet of sorts.

When probed, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) said that the website was banned after complaints were received from “people and institutions”. However, there is no transparency in the entire process. The publication was given no warning, asked no questions, and told nothing before their website was taken down in Pakistan. Even at the time of writing this, no official statement can be found on the PTA website or anywhere else.

This is the reason that we always opposed the powers allotted to the PTA under the new Prevention of Cyber Crimes Act. Without any public debate, without any dialogue, the authority decides what falls under objectionable. An ‘institution’ can move them to action without any transparency or real discussion. Bigger media houses and even corporate companies can stand tall against them, perhaps. But what happens to websites like KT – whose purpose has never been to make money. It deeply angers and saddens us that in all likelihood this is not a decision people running the show will be able to fight.

What is happening to bloggers, journalists, writers, and now even entire publications, is one of the reasons that the Digital Rights Foundation constantly asks for judicial oversight to all processes. It is not okay for an entire publication to be blacked out by the authorities, who have assumed no obligation on their part to explain their actions.

These are dark times for Pakistan. By blocking KT the message we are sending out to the world is that we can handle absolutely no criticism of our social structures, our weaknesses, our institutions, and everything else – even when it’s meted out as a humorous satirical piece.

We stand in solidarity with our friends at Khabaristan Times.


May 17, 2016 - Comments Off on Senators Commit to Stopping The Cyber Crime Bill

Senators Commit to Stopping The Cyber Crime Bill

L-R: Farieha Aziz (Bolo Bhi), Senator Farhatullah Barbar (PPP), Senator Afrasiab Khattak (ANP), Nighat Dad (Digital Rights Foundation)

L-R: Farieha Aziz (Bolo Bhi), Senator Farhatullah Babar (PPP), Senator Afrasiab Khattak (ANP), Nighat Dad (Digital Rights Foundation)

ISLAMABAD: Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi held a consultation today on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, on the day that it was set to be discussed by the Pakistani Senate, in Islamabad.

Legislation that protects citizens from cybercrime and terrorism is needed more than ever, provided that a fair and progressive balance is struck between security and liberty. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill does not meet that balance - rather than protect the rights of Pakistani citizens as its authors and supporters claim, its passage will in effect criminalise freedom of expression, and put the privacy of Pakistani citizens at risk.

The aim of the consultation was to provide Senators, parliamentarians, members of civil society organisations and the media with the context of the process behind the PECB, and to discuss the problematic provisions and amendments that have been suggested in the most recent versions. Senators and Members of the National Assembly gave their thoughts on the process, and expressed their concerns and opinions on how the Senate would treat the PECB when it would be debated in the Senate. Senators Farhatullah Babar (Khyber Pakhtunwa-PPP), Shahi Syed (KP-ANP), Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and Information, and Rubina Khalid (KP-PPP), also a member of the Senate Standing Committee on IT, participated in the discussions on the PECB, as did other lawmakers.

Senator Farhatullah Babar reiterated that the PECB should be subject to a true public hearing, to allow for experts in IT and law to discuss and examine the Bill. Senator Babar also stressed that proper public oversight is necessary, as is a strong balance between security and civil liberties.

L-R: Senator Rubina Khalid (PPP), member of the Senate Standing Committee on IT; Senator Shahi Syed (ANP), Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on IT

L-R: Senator Rubina Khalid (PPP), member of the Senate Standing Committee on IT; Senator Shahi Syed (ANP), Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on IT

Senator Rubina Khalid expressed the concern that the language of the PECB as it currently exists would be used for not just political victimisation, but religious victimisation. Senator Khalid also recounted how the PML-N government had taken advantage of the National Assembly walkout by the PPP in order to push through the PECB. Senators Khalid and Babar also stressed that the PPP has a clear stance that they will not pass the Bill in its current form, and that the Bill was in such a state that it did not deserve to be amended, but to be rebuilt from the ground up, with proper input from multi-stakeholders.

Senator Shahi Syed said that the Senate would not pass the PECB in its current form, and that a public hearing on the Bill would be organised, to allow the public to take part in the process.

MNA Syed Ali Raza Abidi (MQM)

MNA Syed Ali Raza Abidi (MQM)

Raza Ali Abdi (MQM) echoed these sentiments, saying that all efforts to push for change in the National Assembly by MQM have been exhausted, and now the responsibility lies with the Senate to scrap the PECB and start over.

All lawmakers present at the consultation agreed that rather than one faulty bill like the PECB, separate coherent and thought-out bills are required that focus on cybersecurity, cybercrime and cyberterrorism independently. It was also agreed upon that the development and implementation of strong privacy protection mechanisms – to protect Pakistani citizens, their privacy and freedom of expression – was urgently required. Iqbal Khattak, a journalist and member of Reporters San Frontieres (Reporters With Borders) echoed this statement, criticising the current lack of legal protections of legal protections regarding personal data, if said data is handed over to the authorities for any reason.

Senator Farhatullah Barbar reading the latest legal analysis of the PECB, prepared by DRF, Privacy International and Article 19 DRF

Senator Farhatullah Babar reading the latest legal analysis of the PECB, prepared by DRF, Privacy International and Article 19 DRF

Saroop Ijaz of Human Rights Watch agreed, making the important point that to date the PECB has been framed in the context of security – when we look at the Bill, he said, its failings regarding privacy and human rights must be flagged and urgently discussed.

Participants agreed that while comprehensive and well-researched cybercrime legislation is required, the PECB is not that legislation, not as it currently exists. The Bill needs to be redrafted from scratch, subject to a public hearing, and then legislation that truly reflects the concerns and input of multiple civil society stakeholders can be crafted that protects the citizens of Pakistan, but not at the cost of their privacy and freedom of expression. Digital Rights Foundation hopes that the Senate fulfils the commitments that they had made today, to ensure that any future cyber crime legislation reflects these concerns, and will working with Senators to ensure that this is the case.


May 07, 2016 - Comments Off on The peculiar timing of NA’s decision to release Cyber Crime Law’s final draft

The peculiar timing of NA’s decision to release Cyber Crime Law’s final draft

Despite having passed the Cyber Crime Bill on April 13, 2016, the National Assembly made little to no efforts to disseminate the document anywhere. The Bill did not make an appearance on the official website and had till now eluded the general public.
May 7th, 2016 was chosen as the lucky day when the document was finally released - and the decision to pick this date is no accident. By stalling for this long the NA has ensured that no actual criticism or debate could take place within public domains. Why the NA felt the need to hide the bill from public scrutiny is a question that really needs to be asked right now. Had it been released before there would have been a healthy debate for a long enough time before the next Senate session which begins on May 9th and ends on May 20th.
Had an actual debate taken place it would have really helped the cause of the public and civil society organizations. The Bill still has the potential of being stopped when it goes to the Senate floor. Why the government is hell bent on approving a version of the bill that will be problematic for years to come is another question that we must ask. It has become painfully obvious that the government has no interest in investing any of its time in ensuring transparency when it comes to the process of law making - or any other process for that matter.
A law is no joke, undoing, repealing or amending parts of any law is a herculean task. Such efforts have historically not gone over well. If this Bill is allowed to go through then we can welcome in a new era of censorship and tyranny.
To take a better look at what the law entails and how it's about to hit the public hard, go to the following link: National Assembly's approved Cyber Crime Bill

April 30, 2016 - Comments Off on Know a country where women can get killed for using mobile phones

Know a country where women can get killed for using mobile phones

A man stabbed and killed his 16-year-old sister on Wednesday because she was using a mobile phone. While to some the very idea may sound ludicrous, to many Pakistanis this is just another day.

Technology related instances of violence are not scarce in Pakistan, although many are not reported. The case is the most recent example of women paying the price for using digital tools such as cell phones, laptops or computers.

Hayat Khan, the 20 year old in question, threw the body out of his house in plain sight. His sister breathed her last as neighbours scrambled to help. While the Digital Rights Foundation condemns the incident and finds the behavior of the brother in question absolutely repugnant, we also know that such kind of cases are nothing unique. 

Media has reported that Khan had asked his sister who she was talking to on the phone. When she responded that it was none of his business she paid the price with her life. Khan said that he had originally intended to only scare her with a kitchen knife but somehow ended up killing her instead. While he claims that he feels immense grief, the fact that he chose to throw his sister outside the house instead of finding her medical help tells another story.

Already, the father of the girl has said that he has forgiven his son for his crime. Interestingly, the police has made itself the complainant in this case so that the relatives of the victim cannot forgive the assailant. Many a times, men who have committed murders in the name of honour killing go scot-free because the family officially pardons them. Moreover, in other cases blood money is offered in return for freedom - and it is currency that is widely accepted. Under the legal loopholes present in Pakistan's laws women have lost their lives repeatedly under the guise of honour. 

In Pakistan, women’s access to technology can lead to violence. Our work through our Hamara Internet project has helped alert us to many such cases where use of technology endangered a young woman’s life. In 2013, two sisters were killed in Gilgit because a video of them playing in the rain was leaked - the assailants included their step brother who felt that they had dishonoured the family.

In another case, a woman asked her  husband to kill her for 'honour' after a video of her an another man getting intimate was released. The incident took place in February in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The husband turned himself in and told the authorities he felt no regret or shame over his actions because his wife had told him to restore his honour by ending her life. Whether the woman truly did ask for her own death can never be ascertained for sure.

We have come across many instances of young women fearing for their lives over reasons entirely out of their control. In cases of blackmail, online harassment, and even revenge, there is a higher likelihood of families taking action against the victims instead of supporting them.

Examples where use of technology has led to a woman's death are countless. Who should know this better than us. However, this culture of blaming the victim has to end - this culture of violence against women needs to be stopped - and it is high time we started taking women’s access to technology and information as their fundamental rights, and not privilege.

The question we must ask ourselves is this: how many more women need to die before using something as mundane as a mobile phone stops being controversial? How many more will be blackmailed, harassed, and yes, killed, before women's existence in digital spaces is acceptable? The time is now to right back against patriarchy and the time is now to reclaim online spaces.