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Pakistan Slammed for Declining Internet Freedom

by Newsweek Pakistan
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File photo. Banaras Khan—AFP

Report by U.S.-based watchdog scores Islamabad 26 out of 100 over obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights

A U.S.-based watchdog this week slammed Pakistan for declining internet freedom in 2019, the ninth consecutive year that it has found the country lagging in rights of internet users.

The Freedom House on Tuesday released its annual Freedom on the Net report, ‘The Crisis of Social Media,’ covering the period between June 2018 and May 2019. In the report, authors Adrian Shahbaz and Allie Funk noted that digital authoritarianism was on the rise globally and the unregulated space of social media was being used to spread disinformation and exercise “societal control.”

The report, which assessed 65 countries, scored Pakistan’s internet freedom 26 out of 100, with any scoring between 0 and 39 deemed ‘not free.’ It scored Pakistan 5 out of 25 for obstacles to access; 14 out of 35 for limits on content; and 7 out of 40 for violations of user rights. By contrast, India scored 55, earning a score of ‘partly free.’ Out of the 65 countries ranked, which Freedom House notes accounts for 87 percent of global internet users, Pakistan ranked 9 in terms of internet freedom, with its scores tied with Egypt and Uzbekistan.

China was declared the worst offender, scoring a mere 10 points overall.

According to the report, the state’s increasing curbs on political, social, and cultural websites affected Pakistan’s scoring. It specifically pointed to the 2018 general elections, as resulting in greater connectivity restrictions and increased disinformation. It also noted that authorities were targeting critical journalists with greater impunity and social media users were being punished for posting allegedly blasphemous content online, with some even facing death sentences.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

The report’s findings on Pakistan note that there are currently 67 million broadband internet connections in Pakistan, an increase of 10 million in a year. It said that underdeveloped infrastructure limits internet penetration rates in rural areas but mobile internet access is increasing to make up for the shortcomings. It also slammed authorities’ disabling of the internet during times of perceived unrest and ongoing denial of service in marginalized and restive areas.

According to Freedom House, Pakistan often blocks “political, religious, and social content critical of Islam or the military, sites that host pornography or nudity, and sites related to or offering circumvention and privacy tools.” It said that records from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority had found at least 831,000 sites were blocked, including some 770,000 for pornographic content alone, 34,700 for blasphemy, and at least 11,500 for anti-state, anti-judiciary, or sectarian or hateful content. The PTA, it said, “routinely restricts content in a nontransparent and arbitrary fashion.”

It also slammed the ongoing censorship of political dissent movements, especially in Balochistan and Sindh provinces and observed that most online writers and commentators exercised a degree of self-censorship to avoid scrutiny by the state.

The report took special notice of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, noting it and similar laws restrict users’ rights. Government surveillance and social media monitoring were of key concern during the past year, it said, was the continued lack of a data protection law. Users continue to face intimidation, blackmail, and at times violence, in response to online activity.

Overall, Freedom House found 33 of the 65 countries assessed in its report had witnessed deterioration of internet freedoms in the past year. “The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media,” said co-author Shahbaz. “Since these are mainly American platforms, the United States must be a leader in promoting transparency and accountability in the digital age. This is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a Trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.”

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