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September 15, 2023 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation celebrates Seven Years of Resilient Voices in the Media through it’s conference

Digital Rights Foundation celebrates Seven Years of Resilient Voices in the Media through it’s conference

September 15, 2023

ISLAMABAD: Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) held a conference titled, ‘Celebrating Resilient Voices in the Media’ on  Friday, 15th September 2023 at Mariott Hotel, Islamabad. The conference was marked as a celebratory event of DRF’s work and achievements with women journalists in the country, particularly through its Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights (NWJDR). The conference brought together journalists, civil society, government representatives and other stakeholders to discuss the state of media and the challenges that women journalists face in the country and celebrate their achievements despite the difficult circumstances they face working in the field. The conference had an exciting line-up of three panels to delve into DRF’s engagement with the journalist community in Pakistan and showcased an art exhibition of hand-drawn illustrations from DRF’s magazine, Digital 50.50.

The event started off with welcome remarks by Maryam Saeed, Program Manager at Digital Rights Foundation, who added, “We have gathered today to focus on what we have built at DRF over the past seven years. We are celebrating abundance today, of the relationships and friendships our NWJDR has developed and nurtured throughout our journey.” Maryam talked about the accomplishments of the seven-year project amplifying the experience of working with and supporting women journalists across Pakistan. She also highlighted the importance of DRF’s nationwide network of women journalists which serves as a safe space where these women turn to each other for support and solidarity in the absence of support mechanisms.

In our seven-year journey with the NWJDR, we have conducted capacity-building workshops on online safety, ethical journalism, gender-sensitive reporting and media law with more than 1,000 journalists across Pakistan. In 2020, DRF found Pakistan’s first feminist e-magazine, Digital 50.50, which provides a platform for women journalists in Pakistan to raise marginalized voices. In the past four years, DRF has launched 15 editions of the magazine featuring more than 100 original contributions from journalists and 120 hand-drawn illustrations depicting the articles on digital rights covered in the magazine. We also initiated a trend of annual Residential Retreats for the Collective Well-being of women journalists in Pakistan and have so far hosted three Retreats with more than 30 participants attending each of these.

The 1st Secretary of Political Affairs for the Netherlands Embassy, Ms. Lotte Hofste, shared opening remarks and stressed the need for a balanced gendered portrayal in media which shows a positive effect on both women and men. She also shared concerns about women journalists being attacked online mainly due to the intersection of gender and journalism and how online spaces are unsafe for them to pursue their careers.

DRF’s Executive Director Nighat Dad stated, “This conference is a celebration of the network of women journalists that we envisioned and established in 2017. Over the years, DRF has not only taken measures to empower women journalists in the media but also supported them in ensuring their presence in online spaces is safe and rewarding. As the world is increasingly becoming more restricted in terms of free expression, we have gathered together today to celebrate these women and their resilience and perseverance in working in Pakistan’s male-dominated media spaces.” Nighat also highlighted how the harassment and intimidation that women journalists face act as a barrier for aspiring journalists to enter the field and shed light on the power of resilience exhibited by the seasoned journalists who were present at the event.

The first panel of the conference, ‘Unpacking the Mosaic of Digital 50.50’ was a conversation with the contributors of Digital 50.50 moderated by Maryam Saeed. The panelists included women journalists, Umaima Ahmed, Khalida Niaz and Aneela Ashraf, and Digital 50.50 illustrator Bushra Saleem. Khalida Niaz shared her experience of working on stories from tribal areas in Pakistan and the difficulties women journalists face in making their voices heard. She said, “platforms like Digital 50.50 are crucial to amplify women’s voices through different mediums and local languages to cater to a large audience”.

The second panel of the event was on ‘Digital Rights for journalists and media practitioners: where are we headed’ which was moderated by Benazir Shah. The panel focused on the landscape of the media in Pakistan and was joined by panelists Afshan Masab, Insiya Syed, Fauzia Yazdani and Annie Shirazi. Benazir's interventions around journalist safety and shrinking media spaces were eye-opening. She posed questions to the panel about media censorship & the role of journalists in providing access to news a vital one at the end of the panel.

The third panel moderated by Zainab Durrani, “From cyberbullying to legal action: online harassment against journalists” was joined by Malik Kamran Rajar, Secretary National Commission of Human Rights, Usama Khilji, Irum Shujah and Hyra Basit. Usama said, “Many media houses do not have policies that cater to women to begin with. There have been instances where women are fired when they are expecting and women journalists suffer greatly in their profession as a consequence of lack of a policy and legal framework.” Furthermore, NCHR Secretary added, “As Commission, it is our duty to identify the gaps in the system. And our complaint system can be expanded and a complaint filed with NCHR will see a recourse more efficiently especially if the state fails to respond.”

Digital Rights Foundation is a registered research-based NGO in Pakistan. Founded in 2012, DRF focuses on ICTs to support human rights, inclusiveness, democratic processes, and digital governance. DRF works on issues of online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.

For more information log on:


#ResilienceInMedia2023 #NWJDR2023


Seerat Khan
[email protected]

Anam Baloch
[email protected]

Maryam Saeed
[email protected]

July 24, 2023 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation received 75 cases of online harassment against journalists in 2022

Digital Rights Foundation received 75 cases of online harassment against journalists in 2022

JULY, 24 2023: Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) released its Policy Brief for journalists' and media practitioners' complaints received by the Cyber Harassment Heline during the year 2022. In 2022 the Helpline received a total of 75 complaints from journalists and media practitioners consisting of 34 female, 40 male and 1 trans persons. Women journalists are particularly susceptible to online harassment due to their gender, often being subjected to misogynistic and sexually explicit comments. In addition, they may also face self-censorship and professional attacks, which can have significant personal and professional repercussions. 

The policy brief is a compilation of the data from cases received by the Helpline through its toll-free number (0800-39393), which is available from Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm, and other services such as email and DRF’s social media platforms. The Helpline provides crucial tailored assistance to individuals facing complex and intersecting forms of vulnerability. The policy brief also contains recommendations for policymakers,  law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and social media companies to handle cases related to the media. 

The Cyber Harassment Helpline received the highest number of complaints (25%) from Punjab, followed by (17%) from journalists outside Pakistan, predominantly from Afghanistan. Around 51 complaints from journalists and media practitioners received were of cyber harassment, which accounts for 68% of the total complaints received from the journalist community during the year 2022. Out of these 51 complaints 15 were of threats received by the journalists which (29% of cyber harassment cases). This was followed by a total of 13 complaints of hacking attempts of either the journalists’ social media accounts or mass reporting of their accounts which disrupts their work and leads to a breach of their personal information. 

Additionally, defamation has been on the rise with around 18% of cases in the cyber harassment category being instances of organised and targeted campaigns against journalists on multiple online platforms instigating hatred. These campaigns often employed tactics of disinformation to harass their targets. This was followed by the suspension of accounts of journalists by social media companies. In most cases, there were “false positives” where either journalists reporting on issues of violence and conflict were suspended even though they were endorsing the views of those being reported on or instances where content moderation failed to understand the nature of posts due to the posts being in the local language and contextual barriers.

The policy brief also included recommendations for different stakeholders including the government, media houses and social media companies. DRF appreciated the bill on journalist safety, ‘Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals 2021’ but urged the government to address the potential harm that the bill, particularly section 6, can cause to the journalist and media community. The policy brief also recommended that politcal parties should have internal disciplinary mechanisms in place to ensure that they do not act in ways that harms or exacerbate harms towards journalists. The role of media houses in providing holistic assistance to reporters, journalists, editors or any member of their organization facing harassment online or offline was also emphasized. Nighat Dad, DRF’s Executive Director, noted that “We’ve seen a prevailing increase in attacks against journalists on social media platforms which has been quite alarming. Women journalists continue to be targeted online due to their gender and gender disinformation has been at an all-time high. Our Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights (NWJDR) provides support to women journalists but more needs to be done by the state, law enforcement agencies and social media companies to ensure their protection.”

Often, journalists, particularly women journalists, do not approach authorities due to fear of threats and bribery, and because they anticipate a lack of results. To address this, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) and DRF are operating a complaint cell for the protection of journalists at NCHR. The complaint cell was established in August 2022, when NCHR, in collaboration with DRF and the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ), held a consultative meeting with women journalists from across Pakistan. The complaint cell, housed at NCHR, stands independently and is able to provide anonymous, unbiased support to journalists facing human rights violations, which include but are not limited to, harassment, torture, kidnapping. These complaints must be submitted in written form; in the form of through letter, online form, email, or in some cases even a message to the NCHR official number. Through the powers granted by the NCHR Act, 2012, NCHR is committed to tackling gender-based violence in Pakistan. NCHR receives and processes a large volume of complaints related to women’s rights, minority rights, rights of transgender persons, freedom of speech, protection of children, and more on a daily basis. Chairperson NCHR, Rabiya Javeri Agha, noted that “Freedom of the press and freedom of the media are cornerstones for any functioning, successful democracy”, emphasizing NCHR’s support for Pakistan’s journalist community.

Digital Rights Foundation is a registered research-based NGO in Pakistan. Founded in 2012, DRF focuses on ICTs to support human rights, inclusiveness, democratic processes, and digital governance. DRF works on issues of online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.


For more information log on: 




Contact Person:

Maryam Saeed - Program Manager

[email protected]

Nighat Dad - Executive Director

[email protected]

July 24, 2023 - Comments Off on DRF strongly condemns the recent incident of sexual exploitation and harassment at the Islamia University Bahawalpur

DRF strongly condemns the recent incident of sexual exploitation and harassment at the Islamia University Bahawalpur

Trigger Warning

25 July 2023

Digital Rights Foundation strongly condemns the recent sexual exploitation and incidents of harassment that took place at Islamia University Bahawalpur (IUB), where the university’s Chief Security Officer was arrested by local police when explicit pictures and videos of women around campus, staff members and students alike, were retrieved from his cellular devices.

This distressing turn of events marks the third high-profile case in many years. In 2019, a similar incident like this took place at the University of Balochistan, Quetta, and later at the King Edward Medical University Lahore. Incidents like these are indicative of an alarming pattern of misconduct emerging, where at least two of the known cases implicate the chief of security as the primary accused.

DRF calls upon the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and Senate/Parliament Human Rights Committee once again. The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) did take a Suo Moto of the incident and we are encouraged by the NCHR taking up this matter and hope there is effective follow-through in the future. 

In the aftermath of the ongoing situation, systemic issues at educational institutions which have already been highlighted previously by DRF have been brought to light. The ongoing instances have reminded us of past complaints regarding geographical constraints that make reporting difficult especially for female victims; the prospect of traveling long distances to register their cases of harassment often deters them entirely. Even in this particular case, if students from IUB were to register a case under the Prevention of Electronics Crimes Act (PECA) with the FIA, they would have had to travel to Multan which would not only result in a significant financial cost for them but would also be a burden on victims already under distress. Efforts to ensure that no survivor is kept from seeking justice must be prioritized by making the reporting process more accessible and efficient. Addressing the concerns and hesitations of survivors is important and only in doing so can we achieve a supportive environment that empowers victims to come forward with their stories.

Investigative authorities must be required by law to provide sensitized and timely relief to victims. Meanwhile, where such laws are in place, lack of effective implementation and monitoring become the problem. The senate human rights committee in 2019 acts as a prime example here, since it took up jurisdiction of harassment cases recorded on CCTV cameras on campus. Yet, safe spaces for female students have not been created on campus.

Simultaneously, the privacy and confidentiality of the victims must be safeguarded at all costs. Instead, statements by those in the position to protect the women and investigate these incidents choose to question the victims themselves, displaying an inability to take responsibility and a complete disregard for the clear imbalance of power. 

This discovery at the IUB serves as an alarming awakening that harassment continues to prevail in professional and/or academic arenas. Relevant personnel have failed to strictly enforce the rules set out by the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Amendment) Act 2022 and, therefore, have been responsible for the current menace of sexual exploitation in our educational institutions and society at large. It is imperative to mention that the perpetrators at IUB and UOB both were Chief of Security and CCTV was installed for ‘safety’ which rather led to more insecurity and a violation of privacy for women on campus. If stringent and strict action isn’t taken in cases like these it would lead to parents’ reluctance to send their daughters for higher education in Pakistan where female literacy is already an issue.

If you or someone you know needs help reporting cyber harassment, please get in touch with us at the Cyber Harassment Helpline operating from Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm on 0800-39393. You can also email us at [email protected] or contact us on our socials. 


May 20, 2023 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation’s Helpline reports over 2500 Cases of Digital Harassment in 2022

Digital Rights Foundation’s Helpline reports over 2500 Cases of Digital Harassment in 2022

MAY 18, 2023: Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has released its sixth annual Cyber Harassment Helpline Report for 2022. The Helpline completed six years of operations since its launch in December 2016. The Helpline has received a total number of 14,376 cases in the last six years. In 2022, it reported a total of 2695 new cases with an average number of 224 new cases received each month, November 2022 being the busiest month. 

The report is a compilation of the data from cases received by the Helpline through its toll-free number (0800-39393), which is available from Monday to Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm, and other services over email and DRF’s social media platforms. The report also contains case studies from Helpline callers and recommendations for policymakers and law enforcement agencies (LEAs).

The Cyber Harassment Helpline is the region's first dedicated helpline addressing online violence with gender-sensitive, confidential and free services. It provides legal advice, digital assistance and basic psychological assistance and offers a proper referral mechanism. In May, the Helpline expanded its operations to 7 days a week to cater to a growing number of requests over the weekend. Nighat Dad, Executive Director of DRF, noted, “In 2022 we saw a significant rise in cases of financial fraud, scam attempts and online smear campaigns against transgender activists and individuals in the country. The rise in digital hate speech against the transgender community pointed towards a worrying new trend of identity-based attacks.” 

Women were the highest reported victims of online harassment constituting 58.6% of complainants in 2022. The Helpline also noted that the transgender community was subjected to an orchestrated online hate campaign this year and made up approximately 1% of the complainants who reached out to us. The response, or lack thereof, by social media platforms, where the campaign was orchestrated, is another aspect of the trend. Hyra Basit, the helpline manager stated, ‘At the Helpline, we consider it our responsibility to advocate for the most vulnerable segments in society, and to this end, we made constant efforts to engage social media companies to explain the context within Pakistan and the harmful consequences of narratives that don’t fit neatly within the scope of community guideline violations’. 

The highest number of cases in 2022 were from Punjab (1712), followed by Sindh (354) and KPK (144). Geographical breakdown of the data helps in mapping the accessibility of law enforcement and other remedial resources. The FIA, which is the designated law enforcement agency under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), has cyber crime wings in only 15 cities. While reports can be submitted through their helpline and online complaint form, feedback from multiple complainants shows that these methods are not reliable and the most efficient way to submit a complaint is through in-person complaints. Furthermore, the Helpline occasionally receives complaints from people outside Pakistan (106 in 2022), both Pakistani and non-Pakistani citizens, where the lack of physical presence or representative within the country to file a case with the FIA can be a challenge.

The report also includes a set of recommendations for policymakers and LEAs regarding online harassment cases in the country. For Policymakers, the report recommends addressing the existing digital gender divide in the country by removing financial, safety, and social barriers that women face when accessing digital devices and internet spaces. The report recommends FIA enhance its technical expertise by investing in a continuous capacity-building process in order to overcome the investigative delay in cybercrime complaints. Furthermore, regular gender sensitivity training be provided to officials of cyber crime wings. DRF also recommends investment in research at the cyber crime wings to cater to the needs of the litigants and complainants.

Digital Rights Foundation is a registered research-based NGO in Pakistan. Founded in 2012, DRF focuses on ICTs to support human rights, inclusiveness, democratic processes, and digital governance. DRF works on issues of online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.

For more information log on: 




Contact Person:

Hyra Basit - Cyber Harassment Helpline Manager

[email protected]

Nighat Dad - Executive Director

[email protected]

September 7, 2022 - Comments Off on DRF condemns the arbitrary Youtube shutdowns in the country as ‘Unconstitutional’

DRF condemns the arbitrary Youtube shutdowns in the country as ‘Unconstitutional’

7 Sept 2022: Digital Rights Foundation condemns the arbitrary Youtube shutdowns in the country by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and reiterates that these are unconstitutional blocks.

Youtube is a source of income, information, educational tool, and entertainment for many and these blocks are a direct threat to Articles 19 and 19 A of the Constitution. Pakistan already ranks ‘not free’ on the freedom of the net report index according to Freedom House, and these blocks constitute blatant state censorship for citizens of the country.

It is worrying that the PTA has implemented these blocks without any notice nor justification. This lack of transparency and arbitrary procedures should worry every citizen and political party.

The YouTube shutdowns, yesterday (September 6) and on August 21, were targeted at political speeches by former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Blocking the streaming of political speech of any party is blatant censorship. If the PTA believes that the content in speeches should not be allowed, it should make its reasons for banning public and subject to judicial review.

We would like to reiterate our stance that section 37 of PECA, which gives power to the PTA to block online content, runs afoul of human rights standards and should be repealed. Nevertheless, even section 37 does not authorize a blanket shutdown of an entire social media platform.

February 22, 2022 - Comments Off on Civil Society Strongly Condemns the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022

Civil Society Strongly Condemns the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022

February 22, 2022

We, a coalition of civil society organisations, are alarmed by the enactment of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022 as it is an affront to online free expression in the country, amounting to unprecedented censorship and chilling of free speech in digital spaces. The Ordinance runs afoul of Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan which guarantees freedom of expression. Furthermore, the process by which the amendments have been made, arbitrarily and via Ordinance bypassing Parliament, is an affront to democratic values.

The Ordinance expands on the already problematic section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) to make it a non-bailable offence. The offence of criminal defamation under section 20 has already been used to target journalists, political opponents and survivors of gender-based violence, leading to calls from civil society to repeal the section. Instead of paying heed to these calls, the government has, in a blatant disregard to human rights, chosen to expand the section further to apply to legal persons as opposed to “natural persons” as was previously covered. This Ordinance seeks to include defamation of “public figure or a holder of public office” within the ambit of the section which will have the effect of insulating those in power from any criticism. It is obvious that the sole purpose of this Ordinance is to make it criminally punishable to criticise the state and its officials, against settled jurisprudence that extends protections through defamation to private persons as opposed to public figures who lesser protections.

Furthermore, criminal defamation is internationally recognised to be violative of the freedom of expression, especially when civil remedies exist in the law. While the freedom of expression under the Constitution is not absolute, it bears noting that defamation is not part of the provisos to Article 19 in the Constitution. The amendments, additionally, which mean the expansion of criminal sanctions on the fundamental right to free speech are neither proportionate (as they expand the term of punishment from 3 to 5 years) nor necessary.

Secondly, the use of an Ordinance to amend a law passed by Parliament is extremely worrisome and part of an alarming trend where the government is using its extraordinary powers of Ordinance-making to erode the powers of the Parliament and lawmaking institutions. This is a blatant disregard for the Constitution, which only allows for ordinances to be in extraordinary situations when parliament is not in session and cannot be called into session to address an issue that requires immediate action. Furthermore, this is violative of the principle of the separation of powers as the executive branch through the cabinet and President are overstepping into the legislature’s domain. It is obvious that the government does not wish to pass laws through consultation, allowing no opportunity for discussion or debate–the very objective of the Ordinance itself.

We call on the citizens of Pakistan to recognise this Ordinance for what it is–an attack on their Constitutional right to free expression and access to information. If allowed to stand, this Ordinance will have the effect of completely silencing any differing opinions or forms of expression in the country. It is imperative that opposition parties, who erred when they promulgated PECA in the first place, course correct and block this Ordinance from becoming a permanent feature of the law. Lastly, the government is urged to immediately withdraw the Ordinance and refrain from presenting it for assent once the three-month lifespan of the Ordinance lapses. Instead, we call upon all political parties to repeal section 20 should be done through the Parliament given that it runs afoul the Constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.


Alliance for Diversity and Pluralism in Media (ADPM)
ASR Resource Center
Bolo Bhi
Courting The Law
Digital Rights Foundation 
Freedom Network 
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA)
Joint Action Committee (JAC)
Media Matters for Democracy 
Pakistan Press Foundation 
Public Lawyers’ Front (PLF)

September 14, 2020 - Comments Off on Women Journalists and Allies Express Outrage at the Murder of Shaheena Shaheen and Demand Concrete Measures of Ensure Safety of Journalists

Women Journalists and Allies Express Outrage at the Murder of Shaheena Shaheen and Demand Concrete Measures of Ensure Safety of Journalists

The news of Shaheena Shaheen’s brutal murder has greatly disturbed the community of media practitioners across the country and lays bare the structural insecurity women face in this country. Shaheena was an accomplished journalist based in Balochistan and was shot dead inside her home on September 5, 2020 in Turbat.[1] Shaheena was a host on PTV and the editor of a local magazine. She was outspoken for issues facing women, in her profession and community. Her murder is a grim reminder that women journalists face innumerable barriers and threats on the basis of their gender.

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist in, ranking 145 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.[2] The challenges that women journalists face cannot be neatly captured by the discourse of journalist security and media freedoms. Women journalists are subjected to a ‘double threat’ that is both professional and personal in nature. The overall lack of media freedoms and violence against journalists impacts women journalists, however because of their gender, women journalists face a personal threat to their bodies and well-being as well. Shaheena’s murder, reportedly by her husband, is being characterised as a ‘domestic matter’. We strongly believe that the personal is political, and for women journalists the challenges they face in their personal lives--the double shift due to inequitable distribution of care and domestic work, violence within the home, harassment in work and public places, online vitriol directed at them--impacts their work and can often put their lives in danger. Women journalists do not shed their gender when entering professional engagements, rather their gender often predominantly defines their professional life.

We also remember the brutal murder of Urooj Iqbal in November 2019 who was also shot by her husband outside her workplace for allegedly not agreeing to leave her job.[3] Despite the fact that the murder was condemned by journalists across the world,[4] her family eventually settled the matter outside of court and did not pursue a case against her husband.[5] This case shows that when the perpetrator of violence is a family member, the likelihood of settling the matter outside of court, often due to the pressure exerted on the family, is high. Since the passage of the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offences in the name or pretext of Honour) Act, 2016, cases of honour killings can be pursued by the state under section 299 of the Pakistan Penal Code regardless of whether the family forgives the perpetrator or not, but the implementation of the law is inconsistent. The

cold-blooded murders of Urooj and Shaheena are crimes against society as a whole, they should be pursued by the state, particularly in a country where crimes against women are vastly underreported. Pakistan is ranked 151 out of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index Report 2020.[1]

On September 8th, the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, has noted that the Pakistani Government take “immediate, concrete steps to ensure the protection of journalists and human rights defenders who have been subjected to threats, [...] the need for prompt, effective, thorough and impartial investigations with a view to ensuring accountability in cases of violence and killings.”[2]

These crimes take place in the backdrop of daily challenges that women journalists face. Recently, 150 women journalists issued a letter calling out the online harassment that they are subjected to and the ways in which political parties weaponise digital spaces and gender attacks to silence critical women journalists.[3] The concerns that women journalists face should be taken seriously and acted upon, by the media outlets as well as by the government.  State inaction sends a message to women in the journalist community that they are on their own and in the long term discourages young women from joining the profession.

We, the undersigned, demand that:

  1. While we are encouraged that the Ministry of Human Rights has taken notice of Shaheena’s case, we demand that there should be adequate follow-up by the state to ensure that the accused is prosecuted and a possible settlement does not impact the prosecution;
  2. The state prosecution challenges the pardon by the family in Urooj Iqbal’s case in the respective court and pursues the case with the state as a party; and
  3. The government takes immediate and urgent steps to pass the Journalist Protection Bill, with added provisions which recognise the gendered threats that women journalists face and institute accountability mechanisms to mitigate and address them.


  1. Xari Jalil, Dawn
  2. Umaima Ahmed - The News on Sunday, Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights,
  3. Ghareeda Farooqi - News One
  4. Afia Salam - Freelancer
  5. Reema Omer - Lawyer
  6. Maryam Saeed - e Feminist Magazine 50-50
  7. Reem Khurshid - Dawn
  8. Amina Usman - Urdupoint
  9. Fahmidah Yousfi  -
  10. Rabia Noor - ARY News
  11. Najia Ashar - GNMI
  12. Nighat Dad - Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights
  13. Shmyla Khan - Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights
  14. Sahar Habib Ghazi, Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors
  15. Ailia Zehra - Naya Daur
  16. Alia Chughtai -
  17. Rabbia Arshad , freelance documentary and filmmaker
  18. Lubna Jerar Naqvi Journalist
  19. Sabah Malik, Arab News
  20. Nida Mujahid Hussain, Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights,
  21. Sabahat Khan - Freelancer - DW
  22. Maleeha Mengal - Social Media Strategist (Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre)
  23. Moniba iftikhar  - Associated Press of Pakistan
  24. Naheed Akhtar - APP
  25. Tooba Masood - Freelance journalist
  26. Laiba Zainab - Sujag
  27. Sadaf Khan, Media Matters for Democracy
  28. Kiran Nazish, journalist and founder CFWIJ
  29. Katarzyna Mierzejewska, The Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ)
  30. Rabia Bugti - Dialogue Pakistan
  31. Jalila haider -  Independent Urdu
  32. Tanzila Mazhar - GTV
  33. Tehreem Azeem - Freelance journalist
  34. Marian Sharaf Joseph - Freelance Journalist
  35. Luavut Zahid - Freelance journalist
  36. Mahim Maher - SAMAA TV
  37. Maham Javaid
  38. Neelum Nawab - DIN News
  39. Zeenat Bibi - Freelance Journalist from KP
  40. Ambreen Khan - content editor Khabarwalay news
  41. Annam Lodhi, Freelancer
  42. Maryam Nawaz- Geo news
  43. Ayesha Saghir - Producer Express News
  44. Asma Sherazi - TV show Aaj News
  45. Afifa Nasar Ullah - Reporter, City News
  46. Haya Fatima Iqbal - Documentary Filmmaker
  47. Wajiha Naz Soharwardi - CPNE
  48. Sahar Saeed - Neo TV Network
  49. Kiran Rubab khan -  Reporter, 7 news
  50. Imrana Komal - Senior Multimedia Journalist, Free lines
  51. Manal Khan - Independent Writer
  52. Zoya Anwer - Independent Multimedia Journalist
  53. Shaista Hakim - Reporter khyber News Swat
  54. Hina durrani, APP
  55. Sabrina Toppa, Freelance
  56. Shafaq Saba - Freelance Journalist from KP
  57. Mehak Mudasir -  Freelance Journalist from KP
  58. Zivile Diminskyte - Engagement coordinator at CFWIJ

Supporting Bodies:

  1. Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights (NWJDR)
  2. Women In Media Alliance Pakistan (WIMA)
  3. The Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ)
[1] Mohammad Zafar, ‘Journalist Shaheena Shaheen shot dead in Turbat’, The Express Tribune, September 5, 2020,


[1] ‘Woman journalist shot dead’, Dawn, November 26, 2019,

[1] ‘Pakistan: Woman journalist killed for not quitting job’, November 26, 2019, The Coalition for Women in Journalism,

[1] ‘عروج اقبال کا قتل: ’اپنے کام کی وجہ سے پاکستان میں قتل ہونے والی پہلی خاتون صحافی' کا مقدمہ اختتام پذیر’, BBC Urdu, August 12, 2020,

[1] “Mind the 100 Year Gap’, 2019, World Economic Forum,

[1] “Press priefing notes on Pakistan”, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 8 September 2020,


July 1, 2020 - Comments Off on Comments on the Consultation & Objections to the Rules

Comments on the Consultation & Objections to the Rules

Soon after the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 (the ‘Rules’) were notified in January 2020, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) issued a statement in which concerns regarding the Rules were expressed. It was submitted, and it is reiterated, that the Rules restrict free speech and threaten the privacy of Pakistani citizens. Subsequently, we formulated our Legal Analysis highlighting therein the jurisdictional and substantive issues with the Rules in light of constitutional principles and precedent as well as larger policy questions.

When the Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication (MoITT) announced the formation of a committee to consult on the Rules, DRF, along with other advocacy groups, decided to boycott the consultation until and unless the Rules were de-notified. In a statement signed by over 100 organisations and individuals in Pakistan and released on Feb 29, 2020, the consultation process was termed a ‘smokescreen’. Maintaining our position on the consultation, through these Comments, we wish to elaborate on why we endorse(d) this stance, what we believe is wrong with the consultation and how these wrongs can be fixed. This will be followed by our objections to the Rules themselves.

Comments on the Consultations:

At the outset, we at DRF, would like to affirm our conviction to strive for a free and safe internet for all, especially women and minorities. We understand that in light of a fast-growing digital economy, rapidly expanding social media and continuous increase in the number of internet users in Pakistan, ensuring a safe online environment seems to be of much interest. While online spaces should be made safe, internet regulations should not come at the expense of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 and Pakistan’s international human rights commitments. A balance, therefore, has to be struck between fundamental rights and limitations imposed in the exercise of those rights. The only way, we believe, to achieve this balance is through meaningful consultations done with the stakeholders and the civil society in good faith.

The drafting process of the Rules, however, has been exclusionary and secretive from the start. It began with a complete lack of public engagement when the Rules were notified in February 2020- so much so that the Rules only became public knowledge after their notification. Given the serious and wide-ranging implications of the Rules, caution on the Government’s part and sustained collaboration with civil society was needed. Instead, the unexpected and sudden notification of the Rules caused alarm to nearly all stakeholders, including industry actors who issued a sharp rebuke of the Rules. It is respectfully submitted, that such practices do not resonate with the principles of ‘good faith.’

Almost immediately after the notification, the Rules drew sharp criticism locally and internationally. As a result, the Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication (MoITT) announced the formation of a committee to begin consultation on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. However, a consultation at the tail-end of the drafting process will do little good. Public participation before and during the official law-making process is far more significant than any end-phase activity and will be an eye-wash rather than a meaningful process.

We are concerned with not only the content of the regulations but also with how that content is to be agreed upon. The consultations, which are a reaction to the public outcry, fail to address either of the two. Experience shows that when people perceive a consultation to be insincere, they lose trust not only in the process but in the resulting regulations as well. Therefore, we urge the Federal Government to withdraw the existing Rules (a mere suspension of implementation of Rules is insufficient) through the same process by which they were notified. Any future Rules need to be co-created with meaningful participation of civil society from the start. Without a withdrawal of the Rules, the ‘reactionary’ consultations would be seen as a manipulation of the process to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input. Without a withdrawal, it is unlikely the Rules would gain sufficient popularity or legitimacy. Once the necessary steps for withdrawal of notification have been taken, we request the government to issue an official statement mentioning therein that the legal status of the Rules is nothing more than a ‘proposed draft.’ This would mean that anything and everything in the Rules is open for discussion. This would not only demonstrate ‘good faith’ on the government’s part but also show its respect for freedom and democracy.

Even otherwise, it should be noted that the present consultation falls short of its desired purpose in as much as it seeks input with respect to the Rules only. The Preamble of the ‘Consultation Framework,’ posted on PTA’s website lays down the purpose of the consultation as follows: “in order to protect the citizens of Pakistan from the adverse effects of online unlawful content…” It is submitted that to make the internet ‘safe’ and to ‘protect’ the citizens would require more than regulations alone. The government should initiate a series of studies to ascertain other methods as well to effectively tackle online harms. Self-regulatory mechanisms for social media companies, educating users on safety and protective tools with respect to the internet and capacity-building of law-enforcement agencies to deal with cyber-crimes are some of the options that must be explored if the objective is to protect citizens from online unlawful content. These steps become all the more significant because online threats and harmful content continue to evolve. Additionally, such measures will reduce the burden on the regulators and provide a low-cost remedy to the users. It is reiterated that to effectively address this daunting task, a joint effort between the Government, civil society, law enforcement agencies as well as all social media companies is required.

To that end, a participatory, transparent and inclusive consultative process is needed. While this will help secure greater legitimacy and support for the Rules, at the same time, it can transform the relationship between citizens and their government. First and foremost, the presence of all stakeholders should be ensured. The Government should, in particular, identify those groups and communities that are most at risk and secure their representation in the consultation(s). If transparency and inclusiveness require the presence of all key stakeholders at the table, consensus demands that all voices be heard and considered. Therefore, we request that there should be mechanisms to ensure that the views and concerns of stakeholders are being seriously considered and that compromises are not necessarily based on majority positions.

Given the wide-ranging and serious implications of the Rules, it is necessary that the citizens’ groups and the society at large be kept informed at all stages of drafting these regulations. The drafters should also explain to the people why they have produced the text they have: what was the need for it and what factors they considered, what compromises they struck with the negotiators and why, and how they reached agreements on the final text.

Finally, input from the civil society and stakeholders should be sought to define words and certain phrases of the Rules that create penal offences. Many of the definitions and terms in the Rules, (which will be discussed shortly), are either loosely defined or lack clarity. It is suggested that discussions be held to determine clear meanings of such terms.

Objections to the Rules:
1: The Rules exceed the scope of its Parent Acts:

The Rules have been notified under provisions of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act, 1996 (PTRA) and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 (hereinafter collectively referred to as the ‘Parent Acts’). The feedback form on the PTA website notes that the Rules are formulated “exercising statutory powers under PECA section 37 sub-section 2.” Under the Rules, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is the designated Authority.

It is submitted that the scope and scale of action defined in the Rules go beyond the mandate given under the Parent Acts. The government is reminded that rules cannot impose or create new restrictions that are beyond the scope of the Parent Act(s).

It is observed that Rule 3 establishes the office of a National Coordinator and consolidates (through delegation) the powers granted to the Authority under PECA and PTRA to control online regulation. While we understand that Section 9 of PTRA allows delegation of powers, no concept of delegation of powers exists under PECA. Therefore, to pass on the powers contained in PECA to any third body is a violation of the said Act. Even under PTRA, powers can only be delegated to the chairman/chairperson, member or any other officer of PTA (re: Section 9), in which case, the autonomy and independence of the National Coordinator would remain questionable.

Without conceding that powers under PECA can be delegated to the National Coordinator, it is still submitted that Rule 7 goes beyond the scope of PECA (and also violates Article 19 of the Constitution which will be discussed later). Section 37(1) of PECA grants power to the Authority to “remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to an information through any information system....” While Section 37(1) confers limited powers to only remove or block access to an information, the powers to remove or block the whole information system or social media platform (conferred upon the National Coordinator by virtue of Rule 7) is a clear case of excessive delegation.

Further, the Rules require social media companies to deploy proactive mechanisms to ensure prevention of live streaming of fake news (Rule 4) and to remove, suspend or disable accounts or online content that spread fake news (Rule 5). Rule 5(f) also obligates a social media company that “if communicated by the Authority that online content is false, put a note to that effect along with the online content”. It is submitted that the powers to legislate on topics like fake news and misinformation are not granted under the Parent Acts. It is also unknown where the wide powers granted to the National Coordinator under Rule 3(2) to advise the Provincial and Federal Governments, issue directions to departments, authorities and agencies and to summon official representatives of social media companies stem from. These aforementioned Rules are, therefore, ultra vires the provisions of the Parent Acts.

  • Remove the body of the National Coordinator and the powers it wrongly assumed through PECA (re: the power to block online systems (rule 7)).
  • If any such power is to be conferred, then limit that power to removal or suspension of an information on any information system as opposed to the power to block the entire online system.
  • Establish a criteria for the selection and accountability of National Coordinator.
  • Ensure autonomy and independence of the National Coordinator.
  • Introduce mechanisms, through introduction of a public database or directory, to ensure transparency from any authority tasked with regulation and removal of content on the content removed and the reasons for such removal.
  • Omit provisions regulating ‘fake news’ as they go beyond the scope of Parent Acts.
  • Omit Rule 5(f) i.e. obligation to issue fake news correction, as it goes beyond the scope of the Parent Acts. Alternatively, social media companies should be urged to present ‘fact checks’ to any false information.
  • Exclude from the powers of the National Coordinator the ability to advise the Provincial and Federal Governments, issue directions to departments, authorities and agencies and to summon official representatives of social media companies, contained in Rule 3(2), as they go beyond the scope of the Parent Acts.
2: Arbitrary Powers:

It is observed that the Rules have granted arbitrary and discretionary powers to the National Coordinator and, at the same time, have failed to provide any mechanisms against the misuse of these powers.

Rule 4 obligates a social media company to remove, suspend or disable access to any online content within twenty-four hours, and in emergency situations within six hours, after being intimated by the Authority that any particular online content is in contravention of any provision of the Act, or any other law, rule, regulation or instruction of the National Coordinator. An ‘emergency situation’ is also to be exclusively determined by this office. On interpretation or permissibility of any online content, as per Rule 4 (2), the opinion of the National Coordinator is to take precedence over any community standards and rules or guidelines devised by the social media company.

It is submitted that this grants unprecedented censorship powers to a newly appointed National Coordinator which has the sole discretion to determine what constitutes ‘objectionable’ content. These are extremely vague and arbitrary powers and the Rules fail to provide any checks and balances to ensure that such requests will be used in a just manner. It is trite law that a restriction on freedom of speech will be unreasonable if the law imposing the restriction has not provided any safeguards against arbitrary exercise of power. However, Rule 4 encourages arbitrary and random acts and bestows upon the National Coordinator unfettered discretion to regulate online content instead of even remotely attempting to provide any safeguards against abuse of power. Moreover, the power granted under Rule 5 to the National Coordinator to monitor falsehood of any online content adds to the unfettered powers of the National Coordinator. It is concerning that while the National Coordinator has been granted extensive powers, including quasi-judicial and legislative powers to determine what constitutes online harm, the qualifications, accountability, and selection procedure of the National Coordinator remains unclear. This will have a chilling effect on the content removal process as social media companies will rush content regulation decisions to comply with the restrictive time limit, rushing on particularly complicated cases of free speech that require deliberation and legal opinions. Furthermore, smaller social media companies, which do not have the resources and automated regulation capacities that big tech companies such as Facebook or Google possess, will be disproportionately burdened with urgent content removal instructions.

Further, Rule 6 requires a social media company to provide to the Investigation Agency any information, data, content or sub-content contained in any information system owned, managed or run by the respective social media company. It is unclear if the Investigating Agency is required to go through any legal or judicial procedure to make such a request or not and whether it is required to notify or report to a court on seizure of any such information. Given the current PECA regulations, there is still a legal process through which information or data of private users can be requested. This Rule, however, totally negates the current process and gives the National Coordinator sweeping powers to monitor online traffic. The power under Rule 6 exceeds the ambit of section 37 and runs parallel to data request procedures established with social media companies.

  • Re-consider the 24 hrs time limit for content removal. It would be unreasonable to impose such a strict timeline especially for content that relates to private wrongs/disputes such as defamation and complicated cases of free speech.
  • Insert a “Stop the Clock” provision by listing out a set of criteria (such as seeking clarifications, technical infeasibility, etc.) under which the time limit would cease to apply to allow for due process and fair play in enforcing such requests.
  • Formulate clear and predetermined rules and procedures for investigations, seizures, collection and sharing of data.
  • Rule 4 should be amended and the Authority tasked with removal requests be required to give ‘cogent reasons for removal’ along with every content removal request. If those reasons are not satisfactory, the social media company should have the right to seek further clarifications.
  • National Coordinator should not be the sole authority to determine what constitutes ‘objectionable’ online content; neither can this be left open for the National Coordinator to decide from time to time through its ‘instructions’.
  • Remove the powers to request, obtain and provide data to Investigating Agencies.
3: vague Definitions:

It is an established law that “the language of the statute, and, in particular, a statute creating an offence, must be precise, definite and sufficiently objective so as to guard against an arbitrary and capricious action on part of the state functionaries.” Precise definitions are also important so that social media companies may regulate their conduct accordingly.

A fundamental flaw within these Rules is its vague, overly broad and extremely subjective definitions. For example, extremism (Rule 2(d)) is defined as ‘violent, vocal or active opposition to fundamental values of the state of Pakistan including...” It does not, however, define what constitutes or can be referred to as fundamental values of the state of Pakistan. Given the massive volume of content shared online, platforms may feel obliged to take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach –which in this case would mean ‘take downfirst, ask questions later (or never).’ This threatens not only to impede legitimate operation of (and innovation in) services, but also to incentivize the removal of legitimate content. Moreover, an honest criticism or a fair comment made regarding the Federal Government, or any other state institution, runs the risk of being seen as ‘opposition,’ as this word also lacks clarity.

Similarly, while social media companies are required to ‘take due cognizance of the religious, cultural, ethnic and national security sensitivities of Pakistan’ (Rule 4(3)), the Rules fail to elaborate on these terms. Further, ‘fake news’ (Rule 4(4) & Rule 5(e)) has not been defined which adds to the ambiguity of the Rules. It is submitted that vague laws weaken the rule of law because they enable selective prosecution and interpretation, and arbitrary decision-making.

Rule 4(4) obligates a social media company to deploy proactive mechanisms to ensure prevention of live streaming of any content with regards to, amongst other things, ‘hate speech’ and ‘defamation.’ It should be noted that ‘hate speech’ and ‘defamation’ are both defined and considered as offences under PECA as well as the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (‘PPC’). It is also posited that determination of both these offences require a thorough investigation and a trial under both of these laws. It is submitted that if a trial and investigation is necessary to determine these offences then it would be nearly impossible for social media companies to ‘proactively’ prevent their live streaming. Additionally, social media companies already take down such material based on their community guidelines which cover areas such as public safety, hate speech and terrorist content. For instance, during the Christchurch terrorist attack, while Facebook was unable to take down the livestream as it was happening, AI technology and community guidelines were used to remove all instances of the video from the platform within hours of the incident. However, the Rules propose an unnecessary burden on social media companies and if any content is hastily removed as being hateful or defamatory, without a proper determination or investigation, then not only would such removal implicate the person who produced or transmitted such content (given these are penal offences under PECA & PPC) but also condemn them unheard. Even otherwise, hate speech and defamation are entirely contextual determinations, where the illegality of material is dependent on its impact. Impact on viewers is impossible for an automated system to assess, particularly before or during the material is being shared.

It is also noted that Rule 4(4) is in conflict with Section 38(5) of PECA, which expressly rejects imposition of any obligation on intermediaries or service providers to proactively monitor or filter material or content hosted, transmitted or made available on their platforms.

  • It is suggested that discussions be held amongst all stakeholders to determine clear and precise meanings of the following terms:
    • Extremism
    • Fundamental Values of the State of Pakistan
    • Religious, cultural and ethical sensitivities of Pakistan
    • National Security
    • Fake News
    • National Security
  • Use alternate methods of countering hateful, extremist and speech through investment in independent fact-checking bodies, funds for organisations developing counter-speech against organisations tackling online speech against women, gender, religious and ethnic minorities.
  • Formulate clear components of ‘active or vocal opposition’ to ensure it cannot be used to silence dissenting opinions.
  • Omit Rule 4(4) as it violates Section 38 (5) of PECA.
  • Content constituting ‘hate speech’ and ‘defamation’ should not be removed without a proper investigation.
4: Violates and Unreasonably restricts Fundamental Rights:

The Rules, as they stand, pose a serious danger to fundamental rights in the country. In particular, the breadth of the Rules’s restrictions, and the intrusive requirements that they place on social media platforms, would severely threaten online freedom of expression, right to privacy and information.

It is submitted that Rule 4 is a blatant violation of Article 19 (freedom of speech, etc.) of the Constitution. It exceeds the boundaries of permissible restrictions within the meaning of Article 19, lacks the necessary attributes of reasonableness and is extremely vague in nature. Article 19 states that restrictions on freedom of expression must be “reasonable” under the circumstances, and must be in aid of one of the legitimate state interests stated therein (“in the interests of the glory of Islam, integrity, security, or defence of Pakistan…”). The Rules, however, require all social media companies to remove or block online content if it is, among other things, in “contravention of instructions of the National Coordinator.” It is to be noted that deletion of data on the instructions of the National Coordinator does not fall under the permissible restrictions of Article 19 as it is an arbitrary criteria for the restriction of fundamental rights. Furthermore, a restriction on freedom of speech may only be placed in accordance with ‘law’ and an instruction passed by the National Coordinator does not qualify as law within the meaning of Article 19.

It must also be noted that Rule 7 (Blocking of Online System) is a violation of Article 19 of the Constitution which only provides the power to impose reasonable ‘restrictions’ on free speech in accordance with law. It is submitted that in today’s digital world, online systems allow individuals to obtain information, form, express and exchange ideas and are mediums through which people express their speech. Hence, entirely blocking an online system would be tantamount to blocking speech itself. The power to ‘block’ cannot be read under, inferred from, or assumed to be a part of the power to ‘restrict’ free speech. It was held, in Civil Aviation Authority Case, that “the predominant meanings of the said words (restrict and restriction) do not admit total prohibition. They connote the imposition of limitations of the bounds within which one can act...” Therefore, while Article 19 allows imposition of ‘restrictions’ on free speech, the power to ‘block’ an information system entirely exceeds the boundaries of permissible limitations under it and is a disproportionate method of achieving the goal of removing harmful content on the internet – rendering Rule 7 inconsistent with the Constitution as well (previously it was discussed Rule 7 goes beyond the scope of the Section 37 (1) of PECA).

As has already been discussed above, a restriction on freedom of speech will be unreasonable if the law imposing the restriction has not provided any safeguards against arbitrary exercise of power. Rule 4 violates this principle by encouraging arbitrary and random acts and bestows upon the National Coordinator unfettered discretion to regulate online content without providing any safeguards against abuse of power. The Rules do not formulate sufficient safeguards to ensure that the power extended to the National Coordinator would be exercised in a fair, just, and transparent manner. The power to declare any online content as ‘harmful’ and to search and seize data without the measures for questioning the authority concerns the state of privacy and free speech of the companies and that of the people.

The fact that the government has asked social media companies to provide all and any kind of user information or data in a ‘decrypted, readable and comprehensible format’, including private data shared through messaging applications like WhatsApp (Rule 6), and that too without defining any mechanisms for gaining access to data of anyone being investigated, just shows that it is neither concerned with the due procedure of the law nor is it concerned with the potential violations of citizens right to privacy.

Finally, Rule 5 obligates social media companies to put a note along-with any online content that is considered or interpreted to be ‘false’ by the National Coordinator. Not only does this provision add to the unfettered powers of the National Coordinator to be exercised arbitrarily but also makes the Coordinator in-charge of policing truth. This violates the principles of freely forming an ‘opinion’ (a right read under Article 19) as the National Coordinator now decides, or dictates, what is true and what is false.

  • Amend Rule 4 and exclude from it the words “the instructions of the National Coordinator” as the same violates Article 19 of the Constitution.
  • Omit Rule 7 as it violates Article 19 and does not fall under the ‘reasonable restrictions’ allowed under the Constitution.
  • Formulate rules and procedures for investigations, seizures and collection of data which are in line with due process safeguards.
  • Rule 4 should be amended to require the regulatory body to give ‘cogent reasons for removal’ along with every content removal request. If those reasons are not satisfactory, the social media company should have the right to seek further clarifications.
  • The authority tasked with content removal should not be the sole authority to determine what constitutes ‘objectionable’ online content; neither should it be left open for the authority to decide from time to time through its ‘instructions’.
5: Data Localisation:

Rule 5 obligates social media companies to register with the PTA within three months of coming into force of these Rules. It requires a social media company to establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan with a physical address located in Islamabad and to appoint a focal person based in Pakistan for coordination with the National Coordinator.

It is submitted that the requirement for registering with PTA and establishing a permanent registered office in Pakistan, before these companies can be granted permission to be viewed and/or provide services in Pakistan, is a move towards “data localisation”and challenges the borderless nature of the internet - a feature that is intrinsic to the internet itself. Forcing businesses to create a local presence is outside the norms of global business practice and can potentially force international social media companies to exit the country rather than invest further in Pakistan. It is unreasonable to expect social media companies to set up infrastructure in the country when the nature of the internet allows for it to be easily administered remotely. With an increase in compliance costs that come with incorporation of a company in Pakistan, companies across the globe including start-ups may have to reconsider serving users in Pakistan. Consequently, users in Pakistan including the local private sector may not be able to avail a variety of services required for carrying out day-to-day communication, online transactions, and trade/business related tasks. Many businesses and organisations across Pakistan rely on the services provided by social media companies, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic when reliance on the internet has increased substantially, and will thus have an indirect impact on the economy as well. The proposed Rules requiring local incorporation and physical offices will also have a huge repercussion on taxation, foreign direct investment and other legal perspectives along with negatively impacting economic growth.

To effectively defend against cybercrimes and threats, companies protect user data and other critical information via a very small network of highly secure regional and global data centers staffed with uniquely skilled experts who are in scarce supply globally. These centers are equipped with advanced IT infrastructure that provides reliable and secure round-the-clock service. The clustering of highly-qualified staff and advanced equipment is a critical factor in the ability of institutions to safeguard data from increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks.

Mandating the creation of a local data center will harm cybersecurity in Pakistan by:

  • Creating additional entry points into IT systems for cyber criminals.
  • Reducing the quality of cybersecurity in all facilities around the world by spreading cybersecurity resources (both people and systems) too thin.
  • Forcing companies to disconnect systems and/or reduce services.
  • Fragmenting the internet and impeding global coordination of cyber defense activities, which can only be achieved efficiently and at scale when and where the free flow of data is guaranteed.

Preventing the free flow of data:

  • Creates artificial barriers to information-sharing and hinders global communication;
  • Makes connectivity less affordable for people and businesses at a time when reducing connectivity costs is essential to expanding economic opportunity in Pakistan, boosting the digital economy and creating additional wealth;
  • Undermines the viability and dependability of cloud-based services in a range of business sectors that are essential for a modern digital economy; and
  • Slows GDP growth, stifles innovation, and lowers the quality of services available to domestic consumers and businesses.

The global nature of the Internet has democratized information which is available to anyone, anywhere around the world in an infinite variety of forms. The economies of scale achieved through globally located infrastructure have contributed to the affordability of services on the Internet, where several prominent services are available for free. Companies are able to provide these services to users even in markets that may not be financially sustainable as they don't have to incur additional cost of setting-up and running local offices and legal entities in each country where they offer services. Therefore, these Rules will harm consumer experience on the open internet, increasing costs to an extent that offering services/technologies to consumers in Pakistan becomes financially unviable.

  1. Scrap Rule 5 and abandon the model of data localisation as it discourages business and weakens data security of servers;
  2. Develop transparent and legally-compliant data request and content removal mechanisms with social media companies as an alternative to the model proposed in Rule 5.
Concluding Remarks:

We have discussed that the current consultations lack the essentials of ‘good faith’ which demands reexamination of the entire framework. We have also discussed that the Rules exceed the scope of Parent Acts, accord arbitrary powers to the National Coordinator, uses vague definitions and unreasonably restricts fundamental rights which makes them liable to be struck down. In light of the above, we call upon the government to immediately withdraw the Rules and initiate the consultation process from scratch. The renewed consultation should premise around tackling ‘online harm’ instead of a discussion on the Rules alone. Consensus should be reached on the best ways to tackle online harms. This would require comprehensive planning, transparent and meaningful consultations with stakeholders and participation of the civil society. Until this is done, Digital Rights Foundation will disassociate itself from any government initiatives that are seen as ingenuine efforts to deflect criticism.