Media, primarily social media, largely contribute to the spread of skewed narratives and fake news. The digital revolution and the increasing rate of internet users have made individuals extremely vulnerable to manipulation by information. According to the Data Reportal, there were 82.90 million internet users in Pakistan, constituting a 36.5 per cent internet penetration rate in January 2022. News media and social media equally contribute to the spread of disinformation and provoke an online war. There are instances when other forms of media generate fake news that is further aggravated through social media. The two means are widely accessed by political bodies to promote their ideology and disseminate political narratives which best serve their interests. The state’s legislation receives much criticism for inefficient information control, and despite extensive steps, it still fails to cope with false information spread.
Recently, some media sections in Pakistan propagated a “malicious media campaign”, for their ulterior motives, regarding a 25-member Parliamentary Delegation’s visit to Canada in connection with the 65th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference headed by the Speaker of National Assembly Raja Pervez Ashraf. Concerns were raised over the visit amid unprecedented floods in the country. The accusation also mentioned that the delegation disbursed 1.6 million USD from the national exchequer. Meanwhile, social media was overloaded with concerns pertaining to a clandestine meeting between Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Pakistan Officials, with the Israeli officials in Doha. On 7 September 2022, the Speaker took grave notice of the malicious campaign and sought inquiry from National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting for such an un-called for politically driven agenda. The spread of fake news was countered through official statements from the National Assembly of Pakistan condemning malicious media and social media campaigns.
Although the two propagandas were responded to by the state, they raised questions about the existing authorities and the legal framework. In the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting, the Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the Director Cyber Crime Wing, the Chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and Pakistan Electronic Media Crime Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), and Secretary Ministry of Interior were directed to look into the anti-state characters behind such detrimental campaigns. The Committee deferred the Government Bills, including “The Associated Press of Pakistan Corporation (Amendment), 2020; The Motion Pictures (Amendment) Bill, 2020; and The Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2020.
Despite this infinite control, the state still has not found a middle ground where it could appropriately control the intolerable information.
The present legal framework regarding the false information spread is either inappropriate or inefficient. The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 and the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules, 2021, oversee mechanisms for regulating online content; however, they remain unproductive. The other existing legislation has stifled freedom of expression. For instance, the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA), 2016, amends that whoever exhibits or displays false information or harms the reputation of the judiciary, military and public officials will face imprisonment for a term which has now been extended from three to five years. Moreover, this punishment comes with no bail. Furthermore, PTA, which is a federal government-controlled regulator, has also been given a free way to censor any content that is not to the liking of authorities. It enjoys the right to block entire online information platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube etc. According to Meta Transparency Report, Meta restricted 6.43,000 contents in the first half of the year 2022 at the request of the government, stating it violated local laws. It is believed that censorship is the “biggest threat to the growth of the media industry in Pakistan”. The question here is, is censorship the way forward? According to the Freedom House, Pakistan’s freedom net score is 26 out of 100 under the category of “Not Free”. Despite this infinite control, the state still has not found a middle ground where it could appropriately control the intolerable information.
The present legislation in Pakistan with regard to cybercrime is not stable and is constantly undergoing changes. Apart from impacting individuals’ freedom of speech and expression, the laws have yet proven nothing and are widely considered inefficient locally and internationally, i.e., by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; this is apparent from the inevitable spread of false information in the state. In between information control and freedom of speech lies ‘moderation’, which depends on a clear set of ethical and localised standards. For instance, the United States First Amendment specifies that the US government will respect the freedom of “speech” and of the “press”. This depicts that excessive moderation or censorship by the government is prohibited. However, fake agendas against a political body propose harm not only to the officials involved in the fake news but also to the reputation of the state. The state needs specific guidelines with respect to controlling malicious propaganda against state officials, besides countering disinformation through putting statements on official websites.
Individuals exploit social media under the guise of freedom of speech. The public must understand that the right to free speech is not an excuse to disseminate potentially distressing information. Pakistan already suffers from domestic polarisation and neighbours’ mistrust, which creates ample space for manipulating information. Along with looking into the present legislation pertaining to false information, which may be considered too harsh and rather unproductive, there is a need for collaboration between the Government and Private Media Organizations, as malicious campaigns like these create mistrust among the masses. Moreover, a middle ground should be explored by the concerned authorities where controlling media content does not violate the right of freedom of expression and puts a partial, if not complete, stop to the false information spread. Only this can pull the state out of this misery.