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August 10, 2023 - Comments Off on Creative Freedom vs. Societal Sensitivities: The Balancing Act in Entertainment Censorship

Creative Freedom vs. Societal Sensitivities: The Balancing Act in Entertainment Censorship

Rameen Durrani

Rameen Durrani is a student majoring in Economics & Political Science and is working as a Research & Policy Intern at Digital Rights Foundation for the summer of 2023.

Censorship of entertainment frequently occupies a fragile middle ground between artistic freedom and societal sensitivities. This dynamic is especially noticeable in Pakistan, where cultural, religious, and societal norms influence the boundaries of creative expression. In the context of Pakistani entertainment censorship, this blog explores the constant difficulty of striking the correct balance between creative freedom and societal sensitivity.

While Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, it also “allows for reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the "glory of Islam" or the "integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan" or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense.” This provision, amongst others, creates ambiguity as to the degree of creative freedom within a country that has, for decades, been engaged in a battle of achieving modernity while also retaining its traditional values. According to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, “the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) has been established under the PEMRA Ordinance 2002 to facilitate and regulate the private electronic media. It has the mandate to improve the standards of information, education and entertainment and to enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan, including news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art and culture as well as science and technology.[1]

Owing to its largely contradictory laws, the influence of religious groups and the absence of media literacy, censorship decisions in Pakistan have often stifled artistic expression and discouraged daring storytelling. In addition to frequent film censorship, platform bans have also become quite common. Movie database IMDB was blocked on the pretext of it containing a review and link to a documentary on Balochistan. In 2021, PEMRA also directed local television channels to "stop airing caress and hug scenes" in dramas, as it was receiving several complaints against such content.[2] It is interesting to note, however, that no such complaints are addressed regarding domestic violence as well as other forms of abuse that often serve as the main theme of various TV shows.

[1] Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. (MOIB), PAKISTAN. (n.d.)

[2] In Pakistan, TV channels told to stop airing “hugging scenes” in dramas. WION.

Saim Sadiq’s Joyland,  Pakistan’s first-ever competitive entry at the Cannes Film Festival won the Jury Prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category at the festival. Joyland was also shortlisted by Pakistan’s Oscars Selection Committee as the country’s submission to the 95th Academy Awards.[1] After bagging multiple awards on international platforms and receiving a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes, the film was stopped from release in the very country it was representing globally. The Internet appeared to be divided after the Pakistani authorities banned Joyland on the grounds that written complaints had been received that the movie contains “highly objectionable material” that does not conform with the “social values and moral standards of our society.”[2] The film was later permitted to release after heavy censorship in all provinces except Punjab, on the grounds that they were ‘receiving complaints’ against the content.[3]

Actions like these raise questions about the apparent hypocrisy that is embedded in entertainment censorship in Pakistan as films like The Legend of Maula Jutt that portray extreme forms of violence and brutality are conveniently passed by the Censor Board while films like Joyland that highlight important and sensitive social issues are restricted. In fact, according to an Al-Jazeera article, when an objection over graphic violence in The Legend of Maula Jutt was raised before the release of the film, the Censor Board chairperson threatened: ‘If anyone cuts anything in this film, I’ll resign.”[1]

Similarly, in 2023, the film Javed Iqbal: The Untold Story Of A Serial Killer was banned two days before it was scheduled to be released. It was later allowed to be released under a different name and again after heavy censorship.[1] Most recently, the film Zindagi Tamasha directed by Sarmad Khoosat faced a challenging journey due to censorship in Pakistan.[2] Despite critical acclaim, the movie was banned by the government, leading to financial losses and limited audience reach. The ban on theatrical release denied the filmmakers the opportunity to earn revenue from box office collections, pushing them to release the film on YouTube for free. This unfortunate outcome underscores the adverse consequences of entertainment censorship in Pakistan, as it poses obstacles for filmmakers in pursuing their artistic vision.

So the question remains: who decides what is acceptable? PEMRA has been criticized for being overly sensitive to religious and cultural issues, leading to the banning or editing of content that may not be objectively offensive but merely challenges conservative norms. This approach is seen as stifling creative freedom and hindering the growth of a diverse and inclusive media landscape. Moreover, it has led to a drastic increase in self-censorship as content creators self-censor to avoid offending or hurting the sentiments of certain groups, as they fear facing public outrage or even threats. In an interview with Samaa News, Javed Iqbal’s director Abu Aleeha stated, “My cinema is not commercial. I can’t show characters singing and dancing. I try not to show abuse and nudity, but if I am making a film on Javed Iqbal, who killed 100 children, then portraying him to be someone other than what he was would be unconvincing to the audience. I have to show reality.” [1]

[1] “Joyland” is Pakistan’s entry for Oscars 2023. (2022, September 30). The Express Tribune.

[1] Saifi, T. S. (2022, November 16). Pakistan blocks national release of “Joyland,” a story of sexual liberation. CNN.

[1] Joyland film: notices issued to Punjab govt, censor board against ban. (2022, November 30). Bol News.

[1] Sharma, S. (2022, October 22). Pakistani film The Legend of Maula Jatt sets a new benchmark. Retrieved August 7, 2023, from

[1] Khan, A. (2023, March 27). Name of Pakistani film “Javed Iqbal” changed, resubmitted to censor board for approval. FactFile.

[1] (2023, August 3). “Zindagi Tamasha” to release on YouTube, Vimeo. The Express Tribune.


While it is true that petitions to ban certain entertainment content in Pakistan often come from the public, it is important to understand that the majority's viewpoint is not always indicative of what is best for a constitutional democratic society. The public's concerns should not be disregarded outright, but decisions regarding entertainment censorship must be made through a careful and balanced process that considers various factors, such as the right to information and freedom of expression as well as the consequences of violating them. By taking certain considerations into account, Pakistan can navigate the complexities of entertainment censorship while upholding its socio-cultural and religious values. Like many other institutions, PEMRA also suffers from politicization and a lack of independence. Therefore, the need of the hour is to establish an independent and impartial body to oversee censorship decisions that target censorship efforts towards areas of genuine concern, such as hate speech, incitement to violence, and sexual abuse, rather than imposing outright bans on content that might stifle creative expression unnecessarily. In fact, the authorities need to define these categories in a way that there is a clear distinction between content that serves an educational purpose and content that propagates harmful ideals. PEMRA's inability to differentiate between the two raises concerns about the potential hindrance to fostering informed discussions and societal awareness.

With the world moving towards creating more inclusive and accepting societies, Pakistan appears to be heading in the opposite direction, as excessive censorship decelerates social progress and points towards an unaware and ignorant society. This restriction on information access can lead to uninformed decision-making by citizens, undermining the essence of democracy. Moreover, censorship's potential for abuse of power, coupled with media self-censorship, threatens media independence, minimizing the public's ability to hold those in power accountable. Additionally, it denies citizens the right to make their own choices about the content they consume by disregarding individual autonomy. To foster a vibrant and inclusive society, it is essential for Pakistan to strike a balance between the legitimate concerns of censorship and the preservation of freedom of expression and cultural diversity. Balancing creative freedom and societal sensitivities in a fairly traditional society like Pakistan requires a thoughtful and nuanced approach. Creating a space for dialogue between artists, filmmakers, religious leaders, policymakers, and the general public can help bridge the gap between creative expression and societal sensitivities, leading to better mutual understanding.

[1] Shahid, U. (2021, November 28). An uncensored history of film censorship in Pakistan. Samaa.

April 17, 2023 - Comments Off on Feminist Approaches to Digital Safety: Perspectives from the Global South

Feminist Approaches to Digital Safety: Perspectives from the Global South

By Shmyla Khan
April 2023

How does one advocate for digital safety in a world where women and gender minorities are constantly made to bear the burden of the violence enacted against them?

The rhetoric of safety and security is often used in South Asia to police femme bodies, restrict their freedoms, and place the burden of ensuring safety on the victims. Any woman from South Asia will attest to these paternalistic solutions offered under the grab of offering security.

So, how does one practice and advocate for digital safety from a feminist praxis? At Digital Rights Foundation, we have learned that the answer is simple–by committing yourself to a learning, participatory and intersectional practice.

As an organization marking its ten years of work in Pakistan on Tech-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) and digital safety through flagship programmes such as the Cyber Harassment Helpline and Hamara Internet, our starting point has always been the lived experience of those most impacted by digital insecurity. By placing marginalized communities at the centre, we can create practices that are accessible and take into account the ground realities of who they want to serve.

This point was made brilliantly by Deobarti Das during our online Regional Event titled “Inclusive and Intersectional Digital Safety in South Asia”, conducted in February 2023. Deobarti shared that working with marginalised and diverse communities means that there is no “one-size-fits-all solution in response to online gender-based violence or digital security and safety for the range of issues that marginalised communities have to navigate. Therefore, it is important to talk to communities and understand their specific needs, really work in a participatory manner, and start where they are at–a bottom-up approach.”

The regional event mentioned above was organized by Digital Rights Foundation in partnership with Meedan’s Global Check program, moderated by the organization’s Senior Research Associate, Noor Waheed, with panellists Debarati Das (co-lead, Grassroots Capacity Building at Point of View), Kat Lo (Content Moderation Lead at Meedan), Namya Gunawardena (Project Lead at Hashtag Generation) and Seerat Khan (Programs and Comms Lead at Digital Rights Foundation). The event served as a convening of practitioners from South Asia and beyond to share their experiences of working with communities on the ground in developing capacities regarding digital safety.

Digital security tools and practices are often designed in, and designed for, the Global North, reflecting the same biases as the platforms and technologies they intend to provide security against. Practitioners in the Global South have been quick to point out the need to indigenize these practices and tools. Namya shared the importance of using “local languages and simplifying the technical jargon.” She posits that, for instance, “when we say ‘end-to-end’ encryption, we understand it because we are working in this space, but what does it really mean and how do we explain that to someone who does not understand the technical jargon?” Seerat adds that working on digital security means making the content more accessible to the communities you work with, and that is done “not just through [more] languages, but also through a hands-on approach… and follow up with them to get feedback regarding whether the tools are user-friendly.”

Kat points out that while the content of digital security interventions is important, it can often depend on who is working with communities: “One of the most important things is trust, a lot of these [digital security] resources need to be from organizations that the communities can trust, and these are often not governments or LEAs, especially when there is a concern is there a backdoor or do we feel safe using them.”

Digital Rights Foundation shares this vision of digital security design coming from community-based organizations, and this was the approach taken when designing workshops for the Global Check project. Given our history of being part of and working with various communities, our focus in these workshops was on making digital safety–often the exclusive domain of “experts”–accessible to the participants by ensuring that the medium of instruction was Urdu and Hindi rather than English. Furthermore, tools introduced in the workshops were specifically chosen on the basis of their usability and relevance to the experiences of the participants. Feedback from the workshop participants was used to further hone digital security materials, ensuring that the learning process is not one-way, but rather grounded in genuine co-learning practices.

Lastly, by way of further democratizing discourse on digital safety, a Twitter Space on “Making digital safety more accessible in Pakistan” was held on February 22, 2023. The Space featured Digital Rights Foundation’s Digital Security Trainer, Noman Fareed, who addressed key barriers to integrating digital safety into one’s daily life and simple ways in which digital safety can be practised.

These interventions are part of a larger effort by the organisation to create collective resilience through intersectional and community-driven digital safety practices that can start to create a culture of safety in digital spaces. The ultimate aim is to build the capacity of communities so that they can lead these conversations both locally and globally.

April 12, 2023 - Comments Off on NADRA launches ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ Service

NADRA launches ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ Service

Author: Zainab Durrani
Program Manager

One of the latest developments shared by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) is the new data protection service rolled out by them called ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ (‘With Your Consent’). Though limited information is available online regarding the initiative, we have gleaned the following from various sources:

How it works: Since March 2nd 2023, as per news reports covering NADRA’s public release, all national identity-related data acquisition of citizens will be accompanied by a 6-digit code authentication process to verify their consent in all service transactions. 

It is important to note that the NADRA database encompasses the biometric data of ‘125 million unique identities’ as per its own admission, labeling it as the ‘world’s largest singular citizen database,’ holding sensitive data including biometric personal information. The accompanying onus thus falls much more heavily on the Authority to provide safe systems to curtail data breaches, especially in the absence of data protection regulations in the country.

Although the details are not available on NADRA’s website, the news coverage states that the service has been put into motion and will accompany the use of a one-time password (OTP) to collect the authorization of the individual before verification of their Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC).

This development safeguarding the rights of Pakistani citizens in digital spaces, especially through data privacy, is a positive first step and one that must be accompanied by the principles of transparency and accountability. NADRA’s previous record as a data retainer and processor is unfortunately rife with several instances of data breaches.

When we at DRF attempted to register for the service, by sending a 13-digit CNIC number to 8009, a confirmation message was received almost instantaneously stating that the phone number was indeed linked to the CNIC in question, however, no more details were provided regarding the ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ service itself.

Since the publicly available information was limited, we shared our queries with NADRA and encouragingly, received responses. The exchange is shared verbatim for our readers:

Question: How many citizens (and what percentage of the total citizens on the database) have signed up for the ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ service so far? What efforts are being made to ensure all citizens sign up?

Response: ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ service is a backend dynamic service. It doesn’t require any pre-registration. Instead at the time of verification, it generates a verification pass and sends it to the citizen on his/her recently reported mobile number. At the same time this service allows citizens to pair their default number to receive verification code. So far over a million citizens have paired their number to receive the code.’

Question: What checks are in place to ensure that NADRA will be sending the OTP for every CNIC-related transaction?

Response: ‘Data privacy and consent management is a fairly new idea in Pakistan therefore it needs to be rolled out gradually for its acceptance and minimize resistance. Therefore, it is planned to be rolled out in phases. The first phase was rolled out earlier this year and over 250 entities were moved to ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ service. We receive feedback and adjust the service so that the verifying agencies are involved and made part of the system. After gradual rollout, eventually the plan is to ensure that every CNIC related transaction has the consent of the citizen. It may be a verification code, biometric verification or any other means that the organization may find appropriate in coming times.’

Question: What efforts, if any, are in place to ensure transparency in this process? Has NADRA considered instituting a live counter or roster hosted on the NADRA’s website, which can boost confidence in the Authority’s claim to added privacy protection?

Response: ‘As mentioned above, it is a gradual process. First challenge is to get the [sic] acceptance and introduce the consent management regime. As the whole system is automated and there are strict control measures and audit trails available to trace back any irregularity. NADRA takes data misuse [as] a very serious crime and take[s] strict action against the offenders.’

Question: Which transactions will be covered under this service, financial, retail, e-commerce?

Response: ‘Consent management is a universal phenomenon and all CNIC related transactions will be covered. Its rollout is gradual but eventually the whole industry will adopt this regime.’

While the answers provided by NADRA, helped clarify some of the broader details of  the service, left a few of our concerns unaddressed. We believe it would be prudent that NADRA lays out a step-by-step guide to clarify the registration process, to increase accessibility. NADRA shared a video they developed with us that accomplishes just that; sharing this video widely through social media and TV channels would help bolster registration. The link to NADRA’s video on ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ service is available here

We are also concerned by the lack of specificity around the ‘strict control measures and audit trails’ and whether these audits will be available to the public. Additionally, more information on which entities have been moved to the ‘Ijazat Ap Ki’ service roster and generally applying a more forthcoming approach would be a welcome step in progressing towards a nation more in line with open governance principles. 

Another move that could bolster confidence in the Authority’s progress with regards to a citizen-centric vision would be the development of SOPs or perhaps a policy that quantifies and operationalises the ‘consent management regime’ that NADRA referred to in their responses. 

We would like to reiterate the need for a data protection instrument to oversee the regulation of data subject privacy is greater now than ever. Such a law would also be beneficial in institutionalizing changes that require public and private data processors, such as NADRA and the telecom and ISP sector to implement coherent privacy policies across the board. An overhaul of the existing perspective and strategy is required for Pakistan to keep up with the pace at which its citizens are adapting to digital lives.

Regardless, as a digital rights organization, we appreciate the commendable move to institute safeguards to further protect the vulnerable data of citizens and will continue to monitor the developments under this new service and the overall state of privacy in the country.


January 11, 2022 - Comments Off on The Minds of the Women Behind “Digital Rights and Feminist Futures” : A Comic

The Minds of the Women Behind “Digital Rights and Feminist Futures” : A Comic

As 2021 drew to a close, established freelance journalist Zuha Siddiqui and talented Illustrator, Aziza launched a project they had been working on for what has now been over 2 years in the making.

The two have worked together tirelessly to release the original comic “Digital Rights and Feminist Futures”, which looks at the life story and struggles of Digital Rights Activist, Lawyer and CEO of Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad.

The comic is a visual and imaginative treat, masterfully telling the story of the humble originals and challenging beginnings of Nighat’s family. Even though viewers and sceptics may believe they know the basics of Nighat’s life history; an ambitious young woman who set out to achieve more and dreamt the dream of a feminist movement rooted in the Digital space, the comic is sure to surprise its readers, whoever they may be.
The comic is imbued with personal anecdotes and instances that were monumental in shaping the trajectory of Nighat’s life, and it reads like a story with a well thought out plot. This is because Zuha spent hours speaking to Nighat via Zoom and learned in great detail about her life, her passion for Digital Rights, and the pain-staking journey that has been the inception of Digital Rights Foundation and the subsequent Cyber Harassment Helpline which has been the first of its kind in the region.

*Excerpts of illustrations from the Comic

When speaking to Zuha and Aziza about the comic after its initial release garnered a lot of positive attention and feedback, we learned that Zuha had a meticulous process that allowed for her research and subsequent writing of the comic to be well researched and authentic.

Zuha set out researching all about Digital Rights in Pakistan, the pioneers of feminist movements, and spoke to several resourceful contacts that provided her with useful information. She then got into contact with Nighat (even though for the purpose of her work, she would have preferred meeting her subject in person and immersing herself in Nighat’s world and surroundings).

Once the research was done, and the narrative of the story had been laid out in front of her, Zuha took Aziza on board: an exceptionally talented and creative illustrator who owed all of her success in beautifully illustrating such a crucial story to the creative process that her and Zuha embarked on together.

They created a story board, went through the story in depth, and started bringing it to life visually. Aziza’s imagination and drawing prowess coupled with Zuha’s passion for documenting and telling important stories eventually created the brilliant comic which came to be known as “Digital Rights and Feminist Futures”

When speaking to these talented women about why they chose this particular story to tell, and what motivated them to embark on this project, the answer was simple:

“We wanted to create an archive”

An archive of movements and of stories. Stories of women who are spearheading movements in Pakistan. Women who are increasing awareness about Digital Rights and all that the Digital space has to offer. And women who are doing it with the interest of creating space for other women and gender minorities and setting out a path that others can tread on. Not just in the digital sphere, but well beyond that as well.

As for the person in question, Nighat was blown away by the heartfelt and beautifully captured depiction of her story. Reading the comic which summarizes decades of hard work and struggles to work on a mission she believes in, left her speechless and extremely overwhelmed with appreciation for the efforts made by Zuha and Aziza.

The image above is an illustration of Nighat at a crucial moment in her journey to becoming who she is: holding her newborn son and becoming aware of the limitations and flaws of the legal system that is supposed to uphold our rights.

The comic is an honest, heartfelt, and inspiring true story that humanizes its subject and her difficult journey while becoming one of Pakistan’s household names.

Twitter handles for the creators:



September 8, 2021 - Comments Off on Digital and Social Transformations in Pakistan During Covid-19

Digital and Social Transformations in Pakistan During Covid-19

Huma was born and bred in Lahore and is currently studying Public Policy at NYU Abu Dhabi with a focus on gender studies and public health.

Introduction and objectives

At the start of the pandemic, the Digital Rights Foundation conducted a survey on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in Pakistan. This survey was open from March to June 2020. The purpose of the survey was to assess the impact of increased digitisation across the country in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and take stock of the digital and social transformations as part of this process. Some baseline indicators that the survey aimed to measure were:

  • The access and quality of access respondents had to digital technologies, including but not limited to tech devices such as smartphones, laptops and broadband connections,
  • Understanding of online security and privacy among respondents, including concerns surrounding increased surveillance and tracking mechanisms during the pandemic
  • Usage patterns for technological devices and social media, before and during the pandemic,


In a joint statement in March 2020, the Digital Rights Foundation and BoloBhi expressed the digital gap during the COVID-19 pandemic would exacerbate inequalities and social cleavages. According to the statement, “Internet access in Pakistan stands at around 35 percent, with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections.”

According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2021, Pakistan fell into the last quartile of index countries, ranking 90 out of a 100; particularly low on indicators pertaining to affordability, from ranking 76 in 2019, just before the pandemic.

Furthermore, the statement also explained that mobile internet (often the most affordable mode of access) has been shut down in parts of Balochistan and ex-FATA due to generalised security reasons. Even for areas that do have access, internet speed varies based on one’s location. For instance, internet speed in Gilgit-Baltistan is significantly slower than internet speed in urban centers of Punjab and Sindh.

Lastly, the statement also expressed concerns that “lower-income families either do not own digital devices or they are shared by the entire family unit; this means that families with more than one member working from home or students with online classes will be forced to make a choice.”

Methodological Limitations

In light of these, certain limitations of the survey results need to be addressed. Firstly, as the survey was disseminated primarily online, through social media channels, messaging apps, and email, basic access to internet and wifi became a prerequisite for respondents. This left out a large majority of the population that have little to no access to the internet.

Secondly, the dissemination methods also reflect a certain cross section of the population who regularly use and access social media channels of their own accord, since this was the primary means of distribution.

Lastly, this survey was conducted in English and therefore respondents were limited to those who could understand and communicate in English particularly.

Demographic Summary

The geographic distribution of the respondents reflects the pattern of accessibility and digital connectivity expressed by the statement. Inhabitants of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Faisalabad formed the majority of the respondents, with 48, 27, 24 and 11 responses from each city respectively. In total, there were 4 responses from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 1 from Balochistan and none from Gilgit Baltistan.

We received a total of 128 responses to the survey. 71 (55%) respondents identified as females, 54 (41.9%) as males, with 1 gender non-binary individual and 2 respondents preferring not to disclose their gender.

53% of the respondents were between 25-34 years old, with those between 18 - 24 years and 35 - 44 years old forming the next biggest age brackets of respondents (20.3% and 19.5%, respectively). The large majority of our respondents were therefore employed on salary, self-employed or students. As shown below, while a diverse range of incomes were reported, most respondents fell in the middle to upper income brackets.

Survey Results: Major Takeaways

Digital Divide

93.8% of the respondents reported having access to a broadband connection. The eight respondents that do not have access to a broadband connection, all reported using 3G or 4G services.

Nearly all respondents reported having access to 3G and 4G services; however the amount that respondents spent on these services varied widely, as shown in the graph below:

Despite the reported distribution of access to broadband connections and 3G/4G services, a large majority of the respondents reported difficulties and obstacles in connectivity.

55.7% of the respondents reported experiencing weak or no broadband connection once a week. 15.6% of the respondents reported experiencing weak connections once a month, while the rest experienced these not very often or not at all.

54% of respondents felt that a lack of internet infrastructure in their area impacted their ability to participate in class or at work negatively during Covid-19; of these 45.2% of the respondents reported inconsistent connectivity as the main reason.

59.8% of the respondents felt that internet speed, in particular, negatively affected their experience. Of these, 34% felt that the internet speed had actually decreased in their area in the previous one month at the time of the survey.

Nearly 80% of the respondents agreed that the internet should be a public utility during a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. 9.4% of the participants argued that while it should be subsidized, it shouldn’t be free.

While by number, the majority (38.9%) of respondents reported that issues faced in accessibility, connectivity and quality did not negatively impact their access to job opportunities or education, it is important to note that nearly all respondents from outside of Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and Faisalabad felt that it did. This points to a geographic disparity in access, connectivity and digitisation. Due to the over representation of respondents from more urbanised and digitalised areas of the country, the results of the survey are somewhat skewed.

A Dawn article published in June, 2021 describes the gendered disparities in access to digital technologies: there is a 38 percent gender gap in mobile phone ownership (the highest in South Asia) and a 49 percent gender gap in internet usage. Our study however did not reflect the same disparities, with respondents of all genders self-reporting similar access to technologies, ownership of gadgets, internet usage, and privacy too. This difference owes itself largely to the demographic, especially class, particularities of this study’s respondents.

Nearly 73% of the respondents started working from home completely or at least partially after the advent of the pandemic, the following transformations were also reported in terms of increasing technological devices and internet usage. While this points towards an increasing digitisation of Pakistan, as more and more online services are utilised for what would previously be performed through non-tech means, much of the spread of digital technology - especially those indicated here - are limited to urban areas. For example: Airlift Express, one of Pakistan’s online delivery startups, delivers its services in Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar. This certainly reflects the demand patterns across the country, but is also reflective of already present geographical cleavages in digitising basic services.

The options for the above two questions were:
Purchase groceries
Pay utility bills
Do banking transactions
Read books
Connect with family and friends
Attend classes

The variance between the increasing usage of online services compared to the disparity in the provision of these services is reflected tremendously in the increasing demand for quality internet in all areas that were essentially not urbanised cities. Particularly, earlier in the year, students, activists and residents demanded better internet connectivity for Gilgit Baltistan, especially with an influx of students looking to attend online classes after returning due to the pandemic. In an article published in The Diplomat, student activists demanded better internet services in the Balochistan province too, a demand that was met with repression and arrests on the part of the authorities.


With the advent of the pandemic, governments globally introduced a range of new policies to control and inhibit the spread of the virus within local populations. Among these were various surveillance methodologies employed to trace contacts of infected individuals as well as control compliance with other policies. Various organisations and human rights monitors have protested against the unregulated use of these extraordinary measures and strategies under the banner of public health measures, arguing that these infringe upon civil rights, especially the right to privacy, and by extension democracy itself. For example, Privacy International argued: “Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world.”

In particular, a report dated June 2020 highlights the vulnerabilities of Pakistan’s tracking system executed through a COVID app, it was noted that “the app uses hard-coded credentials, which it sends insecurely, to communicate with the government server, and it downloads the exact coordinates of infected people in order to provide a map of their locations. A second independent test found that the app uses an unencrypted database that can be accessed by either an attacker with physical access to the device or a malicious app with root access.”

The response to these mechanisms was varied in the survey results. 43% of the respondents expressed similar concerns over the government’s increased use of tracking and data collection mechanisms to record patients' health, travel and contact histories, with around 35% arguing that they wanted to see more transparency with the data collection processes. 23.4% of the respondents were comfortable with their data being collected but with the condition of some safeguards being present. Lastly, 31.3% agreed that this data collection was essential and were comfortable with it in its current form.

However, a large majority of respondents (nearly 55%) were not comfortable downloading a contact-tracing application on their phone, compared to the 34% who were. The rest were indifferent. This ratio increased when we asked if they would be comfortable if they government mandated said applications - 64% responded that they wouldn’t, while only 27% responded affirmatively.

All that said, our respondents did report having access to and knowledge of digital safety and security - for example, as shown in the graph below, a significant majority reported using two factor authentication. Similarly, upto 93% reported that some or all of their devices were password protected.

Lack of information, Misinformation and Fake News

According to a report published by the Digital Rights Monitor, “even as the internet use soared across the country during the pandemic, people in the newly merged districts continued to rely on printed brochures and radio to get information about the virus. The delayed information about COVID-19 could have been fatal for those who would have contracted it, and lack of information about it would have promoted its spread as well. Not only were people barred from accessing crucial life-saving information, now their routine access to healthcare was also restricted.”

Furthermore, the ‘Manual on Fake News during COVID-19’ written by Digital Rights Foundation argued that fake news, especially on Whatsapp, was at an all time high since March 2020. The kinds of misinformation included: fake cures to mitigate the spread of the virus and manage illness, misinformation about the vaccine and it’s efficiency and so on.

In a study published in 2020 about Covid-19 related Whatsapp messages, Javed et al. used the following illustration to categorize misinformation about the pandemic. Fake news formed the largest of these, including wrongly identifying people diagnosed positive, the amount of deaths globally, hysteria-inducing news about surveillance systems and data collection.

Fig 1.1: Graph from Javed et al.: %age of WhatsApp texts about Covid-19 related misinformation


As the graph below shows, a large majority of respondents to DRF’s survey felt that fake news has increased during the pandemic.

Furthermore, a large number of respondents felt that Whatsapp contained the most misinformation amongst major social media platforms. 95% of respondents reported that they verify information before sharing it further on social media, especially Whatsapp.

According to these initial survey results, Covid-19 related digital transformations, privacy and state facilitated data collection and the effects of varied access to digital technologies is differently perceived across respondents. While they provide baseline data for further study and research, some important caveats to digital research remain, especially driven by huge disparities in access to the internet and other related devices. Further research may relate to studying disparities relating to gender, income level and so on.




June 30, 2021 - Comments Off on Call for Papers and Submissions: Perspectives on Gendered Disinformation

Call for Papers and Submissions: Perspectives on Gendered Disinformation

As disinformation emerges as a part of the information ecosystem online, there isn’t enough recognition of gendered forms that this information takes and the harmful impact that it has on gendered and marginalized bodies.

Gendered disinformation is emerging as a form of disinformation that has a direct impact on movements, gender politics online and the safety of activists.[1] Gendered disinformation has been defined, “the spread of deceptive or inaccurate information and images against women political leaders, journalists and female public figures.”[2] Building on this definition, disinformation is also directed towards feminist and women’s rights movements, not just individuals, in an effort to “draw on misogyny and distrust of women in politics, frequently referring to their sexuality”[3] and gender.

Furthermore, disinformation is employed as a tool for silencing its targets, which has a disproportionate impact on women and gender minorities given their overall vulnerability online and lesser participation in public and online spaces. The implications for political and democratic participation are immense given the wide gender gaps that already persist in many countries. Often the line between disinformation, hate speech and online harassment is blurred when it comes to targets belonging to marginalised communities, including women.

Targeted disinformation campaigns are often launched against individual activists and movements in order to discredit them and undermine their work. These campaigns stymie the important work they seek to do and perpetuate false information in the larger public narrative. Digital Rights Foundation wishes to document and further develop this emerging area of research and policy-based inquiries through a report on gendered disinformation. This call is for contributions for Chapters in the report from perspectives that are different from our own and those often placed at the center of research on the subject. We invite pitches for submissions for our report. Anyone who has access to a Pakistani bank account is welcome to apply.

Questions and Areas of interest:

What is gendered disinformation: How can gendered disinformation be defined? What category does it come under? What are the different ways in which it manifests itself? Why and how does this come to be used as a tool?

Why is this an important issue: How and does varying levels of digital literacy play a role? What are the ways in which gendered disinformation can harm its targets and what are the far-reaching effects? Why and how do some actors use this as a tool e.g. to remain in power or to divert attention?

Legislative measures: How can legislative measures be used to tackle gendered disinformation? What examples are already present, and to what extent are they successful? What is the scope for laws to be misused? How does legislation affect the actions taken by platforms? What loopholes have been used to get away with being held accountable in the past, and what loopholes might be used? How can these loopholes be countered without trampling on peoples’ freedoms?

Who is targeted: Around the world, which actors are targeted? Why are they considered as targets? What makes them vulnerable? What are the varying degrees of harm that it can cause depending on which part of the world the disinformation campaign is based?

How to tackle gendered disinformation: How can awareness and education campaigns be used to reduce the harm that targeted disinformation campaigns can have? What actions platforms can take and why the responsibility falls on them, if at all? What can civil society do more and what assistance can be provided to them?

The final papers should be between 3000-4000 words, but in the interest of making information more accessible to a wider audience, authors can express an interest in supplementing their research in different formats, such as podcasts, graphics, interactive visuals, even games.

Selected authors will be given an honorarium of USD 1250.

Important Dates:

Date to submit abstract: 12 July 2021

Date to submit 1st Draft: 6 September 2021

Date to submit 2nd Draft: 1 October 2021

Request information: [email protected]

[1] Maria Giovanna Sessa, “Misogyny and Misinformation: An Analysis of Gendered Disinformation Tactics during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” Disinfo Lab, December 4, 2020,
[2] Lucina Di Meco, Online Threats to Women’s Political Participation and The Need for a Multi-Stakeholder, Cohesive Approach to Address Them,” UN Women: Expert Group Meeting, Sixty-fifth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 65), September, 2020, EGM/CSW/2021/EP8,
[3] Lucina Di Meco, “Why disinformation targeting women undermines dmeocratic institutions,” International Forum for Democratic Studies, May 1, 2020,
[4] Maya Oppenheim, “General election: Women MPs standing down over ‘horrific abuse’, campaigners warn,” Independent, October 31, 2019, Maggie Astor, “For Female Candidates, Harassment and Threats Come Every Day,” The New York Times, August 24, 2018,


June 4, 2021 - Comments Off on Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance, 2021 – Position Paper

Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance, 2021 – Position Paper

Position Paper by Digital Rights Foundation

June 4, 2021

These comments are with reference to the concept paper circulated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (“MOIB”) titled “Concept Paper for Establishment of Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA)” dated May 19, 2021, and the “Pakistan Media Authority Ordinance, 2021” (the “Ordinance”) dated May 7, 2021.

The proposed Ordinance is a blatant attempt to exercise excessive control over the media in order to “manage” freedom of expression through licensing of content producers, stamp out dissent through expansive and vague terms and conditions, and imposing onerous restrictions and punishments through excessive fines and sentences. Under the garb of ensuring efficiency and eliminating red tape, the government seeks to centralise controls over the media. However, these efforts are completely misguided and utterly unenforceable in the era of digital media, where content production and news making is decentralized. Additionally, imposing a licensing regime for journalists amounts to censorship and violation of settled international norms.

Law by Ordinance is an Extraordinary Measure

Digital Rights Foundation (“DRF”) opposes the Ordinance at a fundamental level as centralisation of regulatory authority is a draconian move and runs afoul to the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973 (the “Constitution”) particularly freedom of expression (Article 19) and right to information (Article 19A). At the onset, the method followed by the state to pass the law via ordinance, as opposed to an Act of Parliament, bypasses democratic processes and checks and balances in place. The power of the President, enshrined under Article 89 of the Constitution, is an extraordinary one to be exercised only when the Senate or National Assembly are not in session and it is necessary to take immediate action. Nothing in the text of the Ordinance and accompanying concept paper identifies the need for immediate action to the clear structural and long-term issue of media regulation. We fail to understand what emergency exists with regards to the media that would necessitate such extraordinary actions. This short-cut method of passing legislation without input from the opposition is fundamentally undemocratic and has become the modus operandi of the ruling government. Furthermore, given that Ordinances expire after a period of 120 days, this Ordinance is a stop-gap effort, at best, and a way to pass legislation unilaterally at its worst. Additionally, the Ordinances proposes sections that allow the Federal Government to issue directives (S. 5)[1], engage in excessive delegation to determine speech rights relating to constitutional rights through the latter creation of a ‘Code of Conduct’,[2] and grant wide powers to make Rules.[3] The Authority also has been given a carte blanche to  grant exemptions from any provisions of this Ordinance where it deems there are sufficient grounds in the name of ‘public interest’.[4]

Curtails Freedom of Expression

Moreover, the Ordinance fails to fulfil its own objectives as stated in the preamble. The lofty objectives of ensuring the “Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression” cannot be guaranteed through overly broad legislation that sets terms and conditions for license holders of electronic, digital and print media. These terms

 S. 5: “Power of the Federal Government to issue directives. – The Federal Government may, as and when it considers necessary, issue directives to the Authority on matters of policy, and such directives shall be binding on the Authority, and if a question arises whether any matter is a matter of policy or not, the decision of the Federal Government shall be final”
S. 20: “Licenses, Registration Certificates, declaration and NOC for media services and films: (5) The Authority shall devise a Code of Conduct for programmes and advertisements for compliance by the licensees or registration certificate.”
S. 48: “Power to make rules. - (1) The Authority may, with the approval of the division concerned, by notification in the official Gazette, make rules to carry out the purposes of this Ordinance.”
S. 39: “Power to grant exemptions.- The Authority may grant exemptions from any provisions of this Ordinance, where the Authority is of the view that such exemption serves the public interest and the exemptions so granted shall be supported by recording the reasons for granting such exemptions in writing provided that the grant of exemptions shall be based on guidelines and criteria identified in the regulations and that such exemptions shall be made in conformity with the principles of equality and equity as enshrined in the Constitution.”

contain vague criteria such as the “preservation of the sovereignty, security and integrity of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan[1], “preservation of the national, cultural, social and religious values[2] and restrains on material relating to “violence, terrorism, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, sectarianism, extremism, militancy, hatred, pornography, obscenity, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency[3] and “prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan.[4] While Article 19 of the Constitution allows for reasonable restrictions as per law on the freedom of expression, it is a well-settled principle of law that restrains on fundamental rights need to be narrowly-tailored and carefully defined so as not to lend itself to undue censorship by those in power.[5] Furthermore, there are restrains on any of the licensee from defaming or bringing “into ridicule the Head of State, or members of the armed forces, or legislative or judicial organs of the state,”[6] which will have the direct effect of styming democratic discourse and public debate given that public figures and institutions are supposed to withstand a higher degree of scrutiny, criticism and even defamation than the average citizen.[7]

 S. 21: “Terms and conditions of license or registration certificate or declaration or NOC. - (a) Conditions requiring the licensee registration certificate or declaration or NOC to ensure preservation of the sovereignty, security and integrity of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”.
S. 21(b): “Conditions to ensure preservation of the national, cultural, social and religious values and the principles of public policy as enshrined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”.
S. 21(c): “Conditions to ensure that all programmes and advertisements do not contain or encourage violence, terrorism, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, sectarianism, extremism, militancy, hatred, pornography, obscenity, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency.”
S. 21(l): “Conditions requiring the licensee to ensure that no anchor person, moderator or host propagates any opinion or acts in any manner prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan.”
UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 34, Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression, 12 September 2011, CCPR/C/GC/34. [General Comment No. 34]. Accessed June 4, 2021:
Para 21: “However, when a State party imposes restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself.”
Para 25: “For the purposes of paragraph 3, a norm, to be characterized as a “law”, must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly and it must be made accessible to the public. A law may not confer unfettered discretion for the restriction of freedom of expression on those charged with its execution.”
S. 21(n): “Conditions requiring the licensee to not broadcast, distribute or make available online anything which defames or brings into ridicule the Head of State, or members of the armed forces, or legislative or judicial organs of the state.”
General Comment No. 34, para. 38: “concerning the content of political discourse, the Committee has observed that in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high. Thus, the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify

Economic fallout on Digital Media

A fundamental flaw in this Ordinance is that it is attempting to regulate all forms of media in the same manner. Given the complex and constantly evolving nature of the internet, it is impossible to regulate online platforms through frameworks that have been designed for other (offline) mediums. For instance, amateur news gatherers or bloggers cannot be treated and regulated in the same manner as big news media companies. This point was also noted in the Joint Declaration (2011) of special international mandates for freedom of expression that: “Approaches to regulation developed for other means of communication - such as telephony or broadcasting-cannot simply be transferred to the Internet but, rather, need to be specifically designed for it”.

The economic impact of this legislation will be nearly fatal, disproportionately affecting digital media outlets and content producers who do not have the resources to ensure registration and pay fees. If the government is serious about its objective of creating “a robust environment for the development of all forms of media, having competition, plurality of voices, diversity of opinions,” then this approach is wholly unsuited for the stated aim. A licensing regime that allows for wholesale restrictions on a channel, publication, website or account as opposed to particular content is unduly restrictive.[1] Furthermore, the Ordinance fundamentally misunderstands how digital media works, the broad definitions of terms such as ‘Broadcaster’ (s. 2(f)),[2] ‘Media’ (s. 2(ta))[3], and ‘Digital Media’ (s. 2(ua))[4] will essentially mean any internet user who produces content relating to “news & current affairs, entertainments, sports, regional language, education, agriculture, health, specialized subject, kids, travel

the imposition of penalties, albeit public figures may also benefit from the provisions of the Covenant. Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
General Comment No. 34, para. 39: “It is incompatible with article 19 to refuse to permit the publication of newspapers and other print media other than in the specific circumstances of the application of paragraph 3. Such circumstances may never include a ban on a particular publication unless specific content, that is not severable, can be legitimately prohibited under paragraph 3.”
“Broadcaster” means a person engaged in broadcast media and digital media.
“Media” means broadcast, print, digital communication channel through which information, entertainment, education or promotional messages are disseminated and includes the electronic, print and digital media.
“Digital media” means any information or content that is broadcast including text, audio, video, graphics, web TV, over the top TV and other such content made available for viewing over the internet.

& tourism, science and technology etc” will be required to acquire “licenses, registration certificates, declaration and No Objection Certificates.” This ‘prior restraint’ model of speech is unduly restrictive and imposes unnecessary barriers to free speech.

As aforementioned, there seems to be a comprehension problem about how digital markets work which is why traditional competitive practices cannot apply to them. The anachronistic competition laws that are designed for local markets cannot be extended to online platforms with a global outreach. Moreover, some online platforms are offering free services to their users, hence, the standard competition criterion of excessive pricing will not be applicable to them.

Prior Restraint Licensing Model

Additionally, the proposed licensing regime is subject to a great degree of uncertainty as the PMDA has the discretionary powers to alter the terms and conditions of the license in the public interest.[1] Licensing of journalists is completely different from licensing media houses, the licensing scheme that the Ordinance envisions would be “susceptible [to] abuse and the power to distribute licences can become a political tool. While the purpose of licensing schemes is ostensibly to ensure that the task of informing the public is reserved for competent persons of high moral integrity, the Inter-American

 S. 19: “Categories of licenses, registration certificates, declaration and No Objection Certificates. - (1) The Authority shall issue licenses for electronic, print and digital media in the following categories, namely: -
(i) National scale;
(ii) Provincial and regional;
(iii) District and Tehsil level;
(iv) Local Area and Community based;
(iv) Specific and specialized subjects; 
(v) International scale targeting countries abroad;
(vi) Other categories as the Authority may prescribe from time to time. 
(2) The Authority may further sub-categorize the categories specified in sub-section (1) as it may deem fit, such as news & current affairs, entertainments, sports, regional language, education, agriculture, health, specialized subject, kids, travel & tourism, science and technology etc.”
Alain Strowel & Prof. Wouter Vergote,Digital Platforms: To Regulate or Not To Regulate? Message to Regulators: Fix the Economics First, Then Focus on the Right Regulation <>
S. 34(2): “The Authority may vary any of the terms and conditions of the license or registration certificate, declaration and NOC where such variation is in the public interest.”

Court of Human Rights rejected this argument, noting that other, less restrictive means were available for enhancing the professionalism of journalists.”

Furthermore the licensing regime is unduly discriminatory and discretionary. The Authority has a wide berth in terms of deciding licensing fee and validity period of the license. The criteria for persons and entities “not be granted license or registration certificate” includes non-citizens, foreign companies, anyone “funded or sponsored by a foreign government or organization including any foreign non-governmental organization.” This exclusion criterion is in equal parts unsustainable and contradictory. The definition of “illegal operation” in the Ordinance includes any “broadcast, webcast or transmission or operation or exhibition, publishing or printing or distribution of films, newspapers, satellite TV channel, terrestrial TV channels, Over the Top TV channels or a newspaper, or provision of access to, programmes or advertisements or content” without a valid license or registration certificate or declaration or NOC. This essentially means that foreignmfunded or incorporated companies cannot stream content inside Pakistan as they are barred from even obtaining a license. The restriction is even more confusing as the Authority itself can obtain foreign funds, but license holders cannot. The stated objective of this Ordinance “to establish

 “BRIEFING NOTES SERIES: Freedom of Expression,” Centre for Law and Democracy, International Media Support (IMS), July, 2014, 
S. 25: “License/ registration certificate and declaration, NOC application, issuance, refusal and validity. - (4) A license or registration certificate, declaration and NOC for any media service shall be valid for a period of five, ten or fifteen years subject to payment of the annual fee and such other fees as prescribed from time to time and subject to compliance with the provisions of this Ordinance, rules or regulations and terms and conditions of license/ registration certificate.”
S. 26: “Certain persons not be granted license or registration certificate. - (1) A license or registration certificate, declaration and NOC for print, digital media or electronic media service and films shall not be granted to—
(a) a person who is not a citizen of Pakistan or resident in Pakistan;
(b) a foreign company organized under the laws of any foreign government; 
(c) a company the majority of whose shares are owned or controlled by foreign nationals or companies whose management or control is vested in foreign nationals or companies; or
(d) any person funded or sponsored by a foreign government or organization including any foreign non-governmental organization.”
S. 2(sc): “Illegal operation” means broadcast, webcast or transmission or operation or exhibition , publishing or printing or distribution of films, newspapers, satellite TV channel, terrestrial TV channels, Over the Top TV channels or a newspaper, or provision of access to, programmes or advertisements or content on any medium including web without having a valid license or registration certificate or declaration or NOC from the Authority.”
S. 15(2): “The Fund shall consist of. - (iv) foreign aid obtained with approval of and on such terms and conditions as may be approved by the Federal Government.”

Pakistan as a major global center for multimedia information and content services” is a non-starter if such provisions remain.

Lack of Independence of the Regulator

Democracies demand that regulators must be independent and free from commercial or political influence so as to ensure that it acts objectively, impartially, and consistently, without conflict of interest, bias or undue influence. However, the Authority is not sufficiently independent from the Federal Government. The members will not only be appointed by the President of Pakistan (S. 6(1)) but will also be removed by the President or Federal Government (s.7(2)) . The members of Authority will rely on the Federal Government for a proportion of its funds (S. 15) which fails to satisfy the legislation’s own aim of creating an “independent, efficient, effective and transparent” Authority. Moreover, the members are also bound to comply with any directives issued by the Federal Government on “matters of policy”, however, whether something constitutes a ‘matter of policy’ cannot be questioned in any court.

Furthermore, the Ordinance creates a confusing structure consisting of the ‘Media Complaints Council’, an ‘Advisory Commission’, and ‘Media Tribunal’. The rationale behind the Advisory Commission, for instance, is unclear in the Ordinance. It is worth noting that the Chairperson and members of the Media Tribunal who will be deciding appeals against orders and decisions of the Authority, will be shortlisted by an Advisory Commission (which includes Chairman of the Authority) (s.27(3)) .

 S. 6: “Members of Authority. - (1) The Authority shall consist of a Chairman and eleven (11) members to be appointed by the President of Pakistan on the advice of the Federal Government.”
S. 7(2): “The Chairman or a member may, by writing under his hand, resign from his office. The President or the Federal Government may remove the Chairman or a member from his office if he is found unable to perform the functions of his office due to mental or physical disability or to have committed misconduct.
S. 15. “Fund. - (2) The Fund shall consist of. - (i) Seed money by the Federal Government; [...] (iii) loans obtained with the special or general sanction of the Federal Government;”
S. 27(3 a) Advisory Commission: “It will be composed of four members from the government, four members from stakeholders and chairman of the authority with an advisory role to shortlist panels for members, chairman of Media Complaints Councils as well as Chairman and members of the Media Tribunal as prescribed by the rules.”
S. 27(3): “Advisory Commission: It will be composed of four members from the government, four members from stakeholders and chairman of the authority with an advisory role to shortlist panels for members, chairman of Media Complaints Councils as well as Chairman and members of the Media Tribunal as prescribed by the rules.”

Hence, it is becoming clear that the Government has no interest in ensuring that the regulator and quasi-judicial forums established under this Ordinance are independent.

Arbitrary Powers

Lastly, the punitive powers of the Authority are extensive, overly restrictive and arbitrary. Most egregiously, the Authority has the power to prohibit any person or organization from publishing content “without issuing show cause notice and affording opportunity of hearing”, which violates basic principles of due process and natural justice which are enshrined in the Constitution. The Authority also amasses extraordinary powers to inspect the premises of license holders without any prior notice, a power that would particularly violate the right of privacy for digital content creators who often operate out of their homes and private residence. Furthermore, there is a bar on appealing decisions taken by the various bodies under the Ordinance except for at the Supreme Court. By foreclosing other appellate forums, particularly at the High Court level, it is clear that the Ordinance seeks to consolidate powers in the hands of the government rather than empower media producers. The Ordinance also prescribes punitive measures for violations. It is quite concerning that these penalties such as heavy fines and even imprisonment can be meted out for

 S. 28: “Prohibition of print, electronic or digital media service and films operation. - The Authority shall by order in writing, giving reasons thereof without issuing show cause notice and affording opportunity of hearing, prohibit any person, print media, electronic media or digital media service operator or licensee or platform for a period as may be prescribed from – 
(a) Printing, Broadcasting, Webcasting, re-broadcasting, distributing or making available online any programme, advertisement or content if it is of the opinion that such particular programme, advertisement or content is against the ideology of Pakistan or is likely to create hatred among the people or is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order or is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility or endangers national security or is pornographic, obscene or vulgar or is offensive to the commonly accepted standards of decency, this shall also apply to foreign broadcast having landing rights of the Authority or any digital media service operating from abroad but with Pakistan as target market and operating under a license of the Authority; or
(b) engaging in any practice or act which amounts to abuse of media power by way of harming the legitimate interests of another licensee or willfully causing damage to any other person.”
S. 31: “Issue of enforcement orders, imposition of penalties, inspections of any media licensee- (2) The premises of any media licensee or registered entity, declaration and NOC shall, at all reasonable times, be open to inspection by the Authority or any officer under sub-section (1) and the licensee shall provide such officer with every assistance and facility in performing his duties.”
S. 37: “Jurisdiction of courts barred-. Save as otherwise provided by this Ordinance, only Supreme Court of Pakistan shall have jurisdiction to question the legality of anything done or decision or any action taken under the ordinance.”

speech acts.[1] Even more worryingly, these offences, made out under the Ordinance will be cognizable and compoundable.[2]

[1] S. 40: “Offences and penalties. - (1) Any licensee and registered entity, declaration and NOC holder or person who violates or abets the violation of any of the provision of this Ordinance shall be guilty of offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine which may extend up to two  twenty five million rupees or with both.

(2).  Where any licensee and registered entity, declaration NOC holder or person who repeats the violation or abetment, such person shall be guilty of offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with a fine which may extend to TWO Twenty-five million rupees or with both.

(3) Where the violation, or abetment of the violation of any provision of this Ordinance is made by a person who does not hold a license, or registration certificate, declaration and NOC such violation shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine upto two twenty-five Million, or with both, in addition to the confiscation of the equipment used in the commission of the act.

(4) Whosoever damages, removes, tampers with or commits theft of any equipment of a media station, printing press or system, cinema houses  licensed by the Authority, including transmitting, broadcasting, uplinking apparatus, receivers, boosters, converters, distributors, antennae, wires, decoders, set-top boxes or multiplexers, servers etc. shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine upto two twenty five million , or both.” [2] S. 43: “Offences to be cognizable and compoundable. - The offences under section 41 shall be cognizable and compoundable.”


While issues relating to the media, freedom of speech and emerging media are thorny and riddled with determinations of the wider public good and the extent of the government’s power to regulate speech. There is no easy answer to these questions. However the unprecedented consolidation and centralisation powers as envisioned under this Ordinance will fundamentally shift the balance of power between the state and media. The passage of this Ordinance will spell disaster for the media in Pakistan, which is already operating within precarious shrinking spaces and in the context of attacks on journalists. Pakistan was ranked 145 in in the World Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Under such oppressive circumstances, this Ordinance will be a death knell for the media. The onus is on the government to show us they are acting in good faith by discarding the proposal to introduce a singular regulatory authority and redirecting its efforts to

 S. 40: “Offences and penalties. - (1) Any licensee and registered entity, declaration and NOC holder or person who violates or abets the violation of any of the provision of this Ordinance shall be guilty of offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine which may extend up to two twenty five million rupees or with both.
(2). Where any licensee and registered entity, declaration NOC holder or person who repeats the violation or abetment, such person shall be guilty of offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with a fine which may extend to TWO Twenty-five million rupees or with both.
(3) Where the violation, or abetment of the violation of any provision of this Ordinance is made by a person who does not hold a license, or registration certificate, declaration and NOC such violation shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine upto two twenty-five Million, or with both, in addition to the confiscation of the equipment used in the commission of the act.
(4) Whosoever damages, removes, tampers with or commits theft of any equipment of a media station, printing press or system, cinema houses licensed by the Authority, including transmitting, broadcasting, uplinking apparatus, receivers, boosters, converters, distributors, antennae, wires, decoders, set-top boxes or multiplexers, servers etc. shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine upto two twenty five million , or both.”
S. 43: “Offences to be cognizable and compoundable. - The offences under section 41 shall be cognizable and compoundable.”
“61 Journalists Killed in Pakistan,” Committee to Protect Journalists, “Pakistan: Escalating Attacks on Journalists,” Human Rights Watch, June 3, 2021, 
“Pakistan: Under the military establishment’s thumb,” 2020 World Press Freedom Index: RSF,

create an enabling environment for the media by investing in infrastructure, media literacy programs and supporting economic models to make independent media sustainable.

December 1, 2020 - Comments Off on Combatting the COVID19 Disinfodemic: A situation analysis for Pakistan

Combatting the COVID19 Disinfodemic: A situation analysis for Pakistan

Author: Mehwish Batool 

Mehwish Batool is an academician and researcher currently working at Forman Christian College - A Chartered University

She tweets @Mehwish_Bat00l

Supported by:


Starting December 2019, humankind has witnessed the spread of two deadly viruses. The first one being Covid-19 – a pandemic that has claimed over 1.25 million deaths till now. The second one was a disinfodemic. The damage that the disinfodemic has done is yet to be determined in terms of its scale (many researches are underway), but it has proved no less dangerous than the novel coronavirus.

In this report, we are analyzing Pakistan’s response to Covid-19 related fake news and what can be done to contain the spread of this era of disinfodemic in the wake of the second wave.

What is Disinfodemic?

The term “Disinfodemic” is a combination of two words “disinformation” and “pandemic.” UNESCO coined this term to refer to the wide spread of false information related to the coronavirus. This is a global issue and there is hardly any region of the world that has not been hit by a misinformation or disinformation campaigns around Covid-19. 


The Outbreak of Disinfodemic

The first case of coronavirus in Pakistan was reported on February 26, 2020. But fake news about the virus was spreading way before that. In January 2020, forwarded messages started circulating on WhatsApp about people dying in China due to a “mysterious disease.” Soon after that, a few Facebook pages and Twitter profiles started posting video clips taken from a Hollywood movie and equated them with the situation in Wuhan. Pakistan’s mainstream media was rather careful in its reporting of coronavirus, but that had more to do with its hesitation to comment on anything controversial related to China than the fact that it was exercising any social responsibility.

While most of the initial WhatsApp posts had the usual "قدرتی آفت" (natural calamity) and "خدا کا عذاب "  (divine affliction) narrative, there was a particular forwarded message that advised people not to order anything from AliExpress as the virus can stay on the delivery package for days. The Current ( a Pakistani digital only news outlet)  tried to debunk this myth and advised their readers to not opt for faster delivery in order to reduce their chances of getting infected by the virus:

As it turned out, AliExpress packages did not become the gateway to Pakistan for coronavirus but the virus did reach us eventually. What followed next was a flood of false information related to COVID-19 origin, remedies and how it spreads.

Misinformation and Government’s Response

Social media became the breeding ground of misinformation on coronavirus; with WhatsApp leading the way as the super spreader of this disinfodemic. Controversy theories were on the rise and many social media users were calling this virus a "یہودی سازش" (A Jewish conspiracy) or an aftermath of a 5G experiment. However, there was no sustained disinformation campaign in Pakistan as far as the origin of the virus is concerned. Zarrar Khurro (Twitter : @ZarrarKhuhro), a senior journalist at Dawn, is of the view that in Pakistan, Covid-19 related misinformation was rather harmless than many other countries. “Of course, the typical WhatsApp forwarded messages were there, but we did not see any sustained disinformation campaign here driven out of political agenda like the one we saw in the US.”

Zarrar Khurro is partially right! Most of the fake news around Covid-19 in Pakistan was not politically motivated. It was harmful nonetheless as the majority of social media users believed in such messages without verifying them. WhatsApp chats and Facebook groups were flooded with posts and videos advising people not to visit hospitals as doctors might inject them with poison and sell their dead bodies to Bill Gates/USA/WHO. In an interview for this piece, Dr. Arslan Khalid (@arslankhalid_m), who is Prime Minister’s focal person on digital media, said that this would have become a dangerous pattern if left unaddressed.

In order to prevent this kind of misinformation, the government took two major steps. In March, the government  took all the major digital media portals and influencers on board for an awareness campaign around Covid-19. Digital content from the likes of Nashpati Prime and Bekaar Films gathered good views and sensitized the public about the pandemic:

Apart from this, a committee was formed by the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) in July to prepare a legal framework to counter the spread of false information about the pandemic. This committee worked under the Chairmanship of the Interior Minister retired Brig. Ijaz Shah, while representatives of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MOIB), Health department, the Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) were part of the committee too. Dr. Khalid, who is also one of the members of the committee, said that they identified and removed many fake posts that termed Coronavirus as a hoax. He also pointed out that social media companies such as Facebook did not promptly respond to fake news complaints raised by the government and it was difficult for them to identify fake content that was shared in local languages.

The curious case of Corona remedies:

Perhaps the largest number of fake news in Pakistan was related to the cure of the virus. Ranging from immunity boosting drinks that can prevent the infection to home-made remedies that can cure corona positive patients; social media was filled with unverified and false information. According to Ramsha Jahangir (@ramshajahangir) - a journalist and researcher with a focus on technology and human rights - the key factor that led to the rapid spread of misinformation was the novel nature of the virus itself. “The corona crisis was unprecedented; it was new and unknown. There were no hard facts about Covid-19 and the situation was constantly changing. Even WHO had to change its policies a couple of times. Now, it has been eleven months and we still don’t have a definite cure to Covid-19, which is why everybody is coming up with different theories.”

As the number of Corona cases increased in Pakistan; desi remedies recommending the use of garlic, saltwater, onions, lemon juice, senna leaves (sana makki) and ginger have all featured in viral posts on social media. In a matter of a few days, several whatsapp forwards started making rounds suggesting remedies for the cure of coronavirus. Most of these remedies were falsely credited to WHO, UNESCO, US and UK based doctors.

A post went viral in which UK based Dr. Nazir Ahmed, a non MBBS doctor dealing in herbal medicine, claimed that he had cured over 150 Covid-19 patients with tea made out of sana makki. This misinformation was soon debunked but not before the demand of sanna makki reached an all-time high in the country. Some of the government officials also shared such posts on their social media accounts and gave way to corona related rumors.


If we put aside the misinformation that was spread via social media, the government’s core messaging around corona was also problematic to some extent.  We can see that eleven months into the pandemic and we as a nation have not been able to adopt mask-wearing and social distancing practices at a mass level. Dr. Arslan Khalid defends the government “I believe that everybody became a medical expert during the corona crisis. This trend was not limited to social media only; mainstream media also added to the misinformation. The way Plasma therapy was hyped by our media, even though its effectiveness is still unproven, that could have been avoided. It’s not just the government, media and civil society should also sensitize the public.”

Fact-checking efforts around Covid-19:

The cure for Covid-19 pandemic is yet to be found but effective and timely fact-checking can surely cure the disinfodemic. In the wake of the corona crisis, many international organizations have launched fact-checking initiatives that aim to debunk the myths and provide sound scientific guidance. In Pakistan, we can identify  few such initiatives, but their reach and effectiveness is still to be determined. The government of Pakistan, for example, has added a section on its Corona portal  titled Myths about Covid-19. It has also introduced Chatbots on Messenger and WhatsApp and a Fake News counter on the Press Information Department (PID) website. Around 200 influencers have been taken on board by the Prime Minister Office to keep the public well-informed (#ehtiyatcorona Urdu for ‘be careful about corona’).

Apart from this, we have a few independent fact-checking organizations such as Soch Fact-Check, Sachee Khabar, and Surkhi who are working to debunk myths around coronavirus. According to Ramsha Jahangir, there are no dedicated fact-checkers in the mainstream media, but a few organizations such as Dawn and Express Tribune have some fact-checking mechanisms in place.

Fact-checking is being done in Pakistan at some level, but these initiatives have limitations in terms of reach and effectiveness. Misinformation spreads at a rapid speed; and these portals don’t have the capacity to counter false news with the same strength and magnitude. Much more needs to be done now to enhance Pakistan’s response to this disinfodemic.


Using Digital Literacy to fight Fake News:

Now that the country is going through the second wave of Covid-19, there is a dire need to launch Digital Literacy programs and equip the citizens to identify and counter fake news. Zarrar Khurro argues that “Fact-checking has now become a life skill. Everyone should learn to do a basic Google search and reverse image search before forwarding any Covid-related remedy.” It might be easier said than done but there cannot be a better weapon to fight disinformation than to equip the public with fact-checking skills. The consumers of fake news need to be apprised of this disinfodemic and how to counter it. To achieve this goal, a collaboration is required between all the key stakeholders; the government, media, and civil society. Media and Information Literacy (MIL) programs should be designed to address Covid-19 disinformation. Educational institutes could step up to impart fact-checking skills among students. Local body officials can also play an important role by engaging people in their constituencies.

The existing fact-checking infrastructure also needs an overhaul. There must be dedicated fact-checkers in the newsrooms across the country. At the same time, the capacity of independent fact-checking organizations should be increased. Government should actively work with social media companies to identify and debunk any false information related to coronavirus. While doing so, it must keep its personal vendetta aside and should not target the voices through dissent. Our experts have a few more suggestions to curb the disinfodemic:

Zarrar Khurro (Senior journalist – Dawn)

Journalists should exercise caution while reporting corona related information. Always attribute the information to credible sources only.

Government should facilitate independent fact-checkers to debunk Covid related misinformation. Information shared in local languages must be closely monitored for fact-checking. 

Education and Health ministries should collaborate with educational institutions to create Media and Information Literacy (MIL) programs focused on Covid-19. Training programs for teachers, students and parents should be organized.
Ramsha Jahangir (Journalists and Researcher)

Mainstream media has a wider reach than that of independent fact-checkers. The media must step up now and hire fact-checkers in their newsrooms. 

Debunked and fact-checked content must be translated in Urdu and local languages.

We need to create digital literacy programs that do away with the jargons and go down to basics. A common person doesn’t understand the difference between misinformation and disinformation. S/he doesn’t know how to report Fake News on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. These skills should be taught to people in the language that they understand.

Zainab Husain (Managing Editor at Soch Fact-Check) (@ZainabHusainn)

Journalism degree programs throughout the country should introduce mandatory courses on fact-checking and source verification. 

Local media organizations should take advantage of the resources offered by International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and First Draft. Links: &

Digital media portals that have a good number of followers should exercise some responsibility before publishing viral stories. They should publish only verified information and should regularly debunk myths around coronavirus.

Dr. Arslan Khalid (Prime Minister's Focal Person on Digital Media)

Media should regularly debunk the myths around coronavirus. It seems we have to live with this crisis for more time now, so awareness campaigns on the mainstream media should not be stopped.

We need to tweak the communication strategy in the wake of the second wave. Core messaging can remain the same but we need to expand our delivery channels and address misinformation proactively.

Our health communication strategy needs to be revised in order to prepare a ground for Covid-19 vaccination, if and when it becomes available.


November 11, 2020 - Comments Off on Punjab Police Women Safety App: Old Approach, New Interface

Punjab Police Women Safety App: Old Approach, New Interface

November 11, 2020

This week the Punjab police launched it’s ‘women safety’ android phone application in an effort to leverage technology to enhance policing for women’s safety. After immense and justified backlash in the aftermath of the horrific motorway gang-rape incident in Septemeber, it is not surprising that the Punjab police is attempting to implement women-centric reform. However, as an organisation working on tech and gender for a number of years, the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) sees the approach and the application both as wholly inadequate for tackling the issue of gender-based violence in the country.

The application can be downloaded from Google Play Store here.

What does it do?

The main feature of the application is its ‘panic button’ which can alert the law enforcement authorities regarding an incident of gender-based violence at a particular location. Apart from that, the application provides access to numbers of the following agencies: Punjab Police Emergency Helpline 15, Rescue 1122, Punjab Highway Patrol and Motorway Police.


Furthermore, the application has an ‘emergency live chat’ feature, though it is unclear whether the feature is a chatbot or run by the Punjab Police personnel. There is also a section on laws relating to violence and harassment; however, our team felt that the section needed to be translated into Urdu as well and could do with more visual/video-based content to make the laws more accessible. Lastly, the app crowd-sources safety reviews of different locations across the province, allowing users to pin rate locations as “secure”, “partially secure” and “not secure” according to their experience.


The Location Review feature is a good idea as it allows policymakers to track which locations are marked and unsafe and design policy interventions to rectify the problem. This, however, comes with a caveat as the data will only be meaningful if a large number and diverse set of users contribute to it. Additionally, data collected from these reviews should not be used to justify surveillance and over-policing measures in certain locations, which create additional human rights concerns and issues of discrimination rather than solve the problem of women’s safety.


Currently, the application is only available on Playstore and compatible with Android phones, which excludes those with iOS-based phones. Furthermore, given that Pakistan has one of the highest gender digital divides in the world, the application essentially only caters to women with smartphones and access to mobile internet. According to the GSMA “Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020”, Pakistan has the widest mobile ownership gender gap as women were 38%  less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 49% less likely to use mobile internet. As per a study by LirneAsia, a think-tank based in Sri Lanka, Pakistani women are 43% less likely to use the internet than men.

The digital safety team at DRF reviewed the application to find a number of issues in terms of privacy. Given that the app collects highly personal information including phone number, location access and NIC number, robust data security and protection policies must be in place to ensure that the women using the application can trust the technology. Furthermore, the permissions of the app include GPS and network-based location, phone number, access to phone contacts, media files and storage.

The digital safety team at DRF reviewed the application to find a number of issues in terms of privacy. Given that the app collects highly personal information including phone number, location access and NIC number, robust data security and protection policies must be in place to ensure that the women using the application can trust the technology. Furthermore, the permissions of the app include GPS and network-based location, phone number, access to phone contacts, media files and storage.


Unfortunately, when the team tried to review the privacy policies in place, the link redirected to the ‘Career page’ on the PSCA website,

For anyone using the app, it is apparent that women’s privacy and safety of their personal information was not a priority for the Punjab Police or the developers of this app. For many women reporting a crime of gender-based violence is accompanied by immense anxiety about privacy in terms of their identity and information--without these assurances, women are unlikely to place their trust in the app. In the absence of personal data protection legislation in the country, lack of privacy policies and protocols is a huge concern. Any intervention for women’s safety that neglects to keep their private data safe is counterproductive and wholly incomplete.

Technology as a Silver Bullet for Women’s Safety?

This is not the first time that authorities and tech developers across the world have sought to introduce applications that can address the issue of gender and sexual violence. In fact, this is not even the first time the Punjab government has attempted this, as the current application seems to be a relaunch of an old application developed by the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) introduced in 2017. Nevertheless, there is increasing consensus within researchers and experts that women’s safety applications are unsuited to adequately addressing the question of violence against women.

Firstly, these applications treat women’s safety as an issue that only occurs in public places and crimes perpetrated by strangers. This approach fundamentally misunderstands issues of violence, which are perpetrated inside the home (domestic violence, marital rape and sexual violence at the hands of family members and ‘trusted’ individuals). This means that applications such as these are only scratching the surface of the violence and harassment that women face in society at large.

Secondly, no amount of technology and applications can solve the systemic problems of misogyny and patriarchal mindsets within the police and public institutions. Often women do not report cases of violence because of societal perceptions around victims and victim-blaming by law enforcement bodies. Technology will not change these attitudes. Applications such as these just provide a new interface for an old institution. Until and unless law enforcement bodies and the legal system, in general, engage in systemic reform at every level, any technological interventions will be rendered superfluous.

Thirdly, surveillance cannot and should not be posited as a solution to women’s safety. DRF has pointed out several times that technological interventions that seek to increase surveillance of women’s movement and bodies in order to ‘protect’ them are simply benevolent and paternalistic patriarchal control in another name. Technology often ends up replicating familial and societal surveillance of women’s bodies which does not truly emancipate or change the root causes of the violence against them.

Fourthly, if the app seeks to serve all women it should take into account issues of accessibility for women and persons with disabilities. Currently, for instance, the app lacks features to make the text and graphics readable for visually impaired persons. The app does come with a video explaining how to use it, however more visual and video content regarding the laws and other features will make it more accessible to women who are not literate.

This application comes less than two months after the motorway incident which shook the mainstream national consciousness on the issue of gender-based violence, particularly rape. It is no secret that the Punjab Police received immense criticism because of the victim-blaming remarks of the CCPO Lahore, Umar Sheikh. As per data collected by the DRF team, through monitoring of English-language newspapers, 123 cases of gender-based violence have been reported in just two months after the incident. Incidents such as these often compel law enforcement to engage in interventions and reform that creates the public perception that steps are being taken to address the problem--however cosmetic changes such as new apps do little to actually change things. ‘Internet Democracy,’ an organisation based in India, has noted that after the 2012 Delhi rape case several ‘women’s safety’ applications emerged. Similar to Pakistan, these technological interventions did little to change the ground realities that women face on a daily basis.


It seems that the Punjab Police has taken a top-down approach to women’s safety by developing (or rather rebranding) technology to ‘protect’ women without taking into account the actual lived experience of women and gender minorities in Pakistan. No effort seems to have been made to consult women’s rights and digital rights organisations when making the technology. Technology cannot be expected to enact social change or facilitate marginalised communities if its design does not incorporate the very communities that it seeks to serve. Additionally, technology cannot be used as a smokescreen to dent criticism of policing and the barriers women face at the hands of law enforcement if it is not accompanied by structural and meaningful reform.


November 2, 2020 - Comments Off on Pakistani students in Wuhan: the other side of the story

Pakistani students in Wuhan: the other side of the story

Autor: Tehreem Azeem

Tehreem Azeem is a digital media journalist and a Ph.D. scholar at the Communication University of China.

She tweets @tehreemazeem

Supported by 

“Can you connect me with any Pakistani student in Wuhan?”

This was the common request I was getting from my friends and colleagues working in media houses of Pakistan. I came to Beijing in September of last year to do a PhD in Communication Studies. Four months later, I saw China battling a novel coronavirus which we all today know as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Some of my friends in the media took my comments too for their stories on the situation of Pakistani students in China but I was living in Beijing, 1,115 km away from the virus-hit Wuhan. They were more interested in connecting with someone from Wuhan. Soon, we realized the media was interested in the ‘we are dying here’ statements only. Many of the students stopped talking to the media as it was not helping them; instead, it was making their families in Pakistan more worried.

Hira* completed her PhD in December from a university in Wuhan. She had booked a flight of late January which got cancelled after the city was put into lockdown. The university had stopped her stipend as she had graduated. Her university allowed her to stay on campus for free the whole period.

‘It was tough. The university was helping us at every level. They gave us masks, sanitizers, and anything we wanted to get from outside. My problem was a bit different. My stipend had stopped. I did not know how long the quarantine would go. I requested the embassy to at least send us (those who had graduated) to Pakistan. We had nothing to do here,’ she said.

She finally left Wuhan on the first flight of Pakistan International Airlines on 19 May 2020. She spent her quarantine talking with Pakistani girls in a WeChat group. That was the time when some students from Wuhan University of Science and Technology released a video on social media in which they said they had limited food supplies and the government must evacuate them. I asked Hira if she was getting the groceries easily in Wuhan.

Screenshot from the video message of Pakistani students of Wuhan University of Science and Technology

‘Yes, that was not the problem. I had rice, pulses, and spices. I could also order groceries online. Prices of few commodities did go high but I would not say that I was not getting anything.’

Hira said the students were scared of the uncertainty of the whole situation. They just wanted to leave China.

Pakistan decided not to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan. The news was immediately picked up by international media. Deutsche Welle news published a video on their YouTube channel with the title ‘Is Pakistan abandoning its citizens in China?’. The anchor talked to a student from the Xianning city of Hubei province to know the living conditions in lockdown. He told him that he could not even go out of the campus and the city was in complete lockdown.

‘There is no transportation. Our city is totally locked down - no trains, no airports. We are just trapped in our rooms and no one is here to help us.’

Later, a TV anchor took senior journalist Shahzeb Jillani on the video link to get his comment on this issue. Jillani clearly said the real reason behind Pakistan’s decision to not evacuate its citizens from Wuhan was Pak-China friendship.

‘The official stance is that Pakistan does not want the disease to spread. It is acting under WHO guidelines and the Chinese have assured them that we will take care of the situation but the real reason we all know is the special relationship between China and Pakistan.’

No doubt, that was the main reason Pakistan refused to airlift its people from Wuhan. The government first announced to provide financial aid to students in Wuhan and later said it will also send food. The students did receive money but that was not equivalent to USD 840 which was promised. Each student in Wuhan received 3500 yuan which makes USD 496. However, eight students of the University of Chinese academy of sciences and twelve students of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural sciences did not receive this money till the end of March. They received the money after the issue was highlighted in a report of Independent Urdu.

The Pakistani media should have investigated these stories but it preferred to disturb our families in China. Social media influencers or bloggers were no different. Comedian Junaid Akram in a podcast while criticizing the government on its stance about students in Wuhan said that he received calls and messages from relatives of people living in China. He said that students in China had not much food to eat and that they were surviving on whatever rations they had.

Junaid Akram released this podcast on 2 February 2020

TV channels in Pakistan showed visuals from the video message of students from Wuhan University of Science and Technology in their news bulletins. Jamal Ahmed was a student of The Communication University of China in Beijing. His family told him to take the first available flight to Pakistan after they watched these reports on TV channels. Ahmed had to buy an expensive ticket and return to Pakistan; otherwise, he had planned to go after his graduation in July. He talked to a couple of journalists before his departure.

‘I told a journalist that China has even closed mosques so people could not gather at any place. The reporter wrote in their report that Muslim students are even not allowed to go to mosques in China. I contacted the person and asked them to correct it. They changed it after half an hour.’

Ahmed stopped watching TV after he returned home. He said watching TV during the outbreak was creating more panic than the virus itself.

Nazish Zafar of BBC Urdu says the media was taking information from the videos students were posting on social media. She says those videos had different messages – some students wanted to come back, and some did not. The media preferred to stay with the videos, which showed panic, helplessness, and fear.

‘Also, there was no official statement to verify and crosscheck their claims of food shortage. President Alvi and the Foreign minister after their visit to China told the media that the students had asked for Pakistani food. This statement somehow confirmed that the students had food-related issues.’

Sisters Sehar Iqbal and Mehar Iqbal are studying Chinese literature at Wuhan University.  They started vlogging in January. They released a video on 26 January 2020 in which first, they showed the masks their university had given them. Later, they went out of the campus to buy groceries for lockdown. They say we don’t know how long we will have to live like this. In their next video, they talked about the situation of foreigners in Wuhan. They said the situation was not as bad as it was being shown.

‘Our teachers are taking care of us. The whole Pakistani community of our university is in a WeChat group. Our representative took details of each student and forwarded it to the embassy. It’s not like we are alone here.’

Both sisters, Sehar Iqbal and Mehar Iqbal share screen in one of their video on YouTube: Screengrab

They also told that the university had opened its cafeterias and supermarkets which normally are kept closed during summer and winter vacations. Dawn news shared their video in a news story. Aljazeera also published their video on its website and social media platforms on 3 February. This video became the most-watched video on its Facebook and Twitter accounts that week. Both sisters talked to many media houses after that giving the same stance that the situation was not as bad in Wuhan as the media was showing.

When I approached them to have their comments for this piece, they told me that the Pakistani students of their university were threatening them for their comments on media. They said to me that the Pakistani community of their university had decided to give a single narrative in media to push the government to send a plane for their evacuation.

They shared screenshots of a few messages they had received on the Chinese messaging app WeChat with me. In one message, a student told them to take permission from him before giving any comment in the media. The student has written in his message that even male students take his permission before talking to the media. He also wrote that the girls were disrespecting him for not doing so.

Iqbal sisters told me that that particular student is still in China. He did not go back to Pakistan when the plane finally arrived in Wuhan.

A friend of them sent them a message to tell that many members of the Pakistani community had asked him for their fathers’ mobile number. Apparently, they wanted to call him to stop their daughters.

They also received a message from a Chinese number on their WhatsApp in which the sender said that they were not supporting their brothers and sisters. In a friend request on WeChat, a person not only abused them but also threatened to leak their biodata.

The girls said that their WeChat id and WhatsApp number was already shared in the Pakistani community. Some students even called their house and talked to their parents.

The girls were in touch with an official in the embassy of Pakistan in Beijing. They shared these screenshots with the officer. The official did not do much except calling the dean of their department who called them and assured of his full support. Iqbal sisters did not file any complaint to the International Students Office of their university. They said they were so afraid and they did not want any of those threats to come true.

Both sisters appeared in Zara Hat Kay of Dawn News on 9th April 2020. In this show, they mentioned that they were receiving threats for their comments. They also told the hosts how their university was taking care of them during the peak of the outbreak.

While talking to me, they said that their university was providing three-time meals, masks, sanitizers, fruits, sanitary napkins for female students, and diapers for the families with children.

A PhD student of their university who wishes to remain anonymous and who had sent them a threatening message said that the community had decided to put pressure on the government through the media for their evacuation.

‘The whole situation was uncertain here. Everything was closed at that time, and we had no idea when things will come to normal at that time. No student from Wuhan University said that they were not getting food supplies. Some of us had medical issues; three women were pregnant. The outbreak was putting them into depression. Some people were above 40 years of age. That is why the community here was pressurising the government for evacuation.’

I also asked him about the threats Iqbal sisters were receiving for not following what the community was directing and sticking with their comments. He said it might have happened and no one should be blamed for it. It was the uncertainty and the fear of getting an infection that made them harsh.

 This single event tells us how user-generated content can affect media reports if not verified or cross-checked. The Iqbal girls went through a lot, more than any of us whose families would call them hysterically after watching TV reports about our situation in China. That was a tough time. It has passed, but we have lost our faith in the media of our country.  

*Names were changed to protect the privacy of the individual(s)