FIEL - A man explores social media on a computer at an internet club in Islamabad, Pakistan, August 11, 2016.
FILE - A man explores social media on a computer at an internet club in Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 11, 2016.

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan has approved a set of new rules to regulate all social media platforms, a move critics denounced as an attack on freedom of the press and free speech in the country. 

The regulations, issued by the federal government on Wednesday, empower authorities to fine or ban social media platforms over their users’ content. Companies such as Facebook (which owns WhatsApp), Twitter and Google (which owns YouTube) will be required to remove within 24 hours content Pakistani authorities deem “unlawful.” 

Specifically, the companies are tasked with providing decrypted content and “any other information” about users accused of posting “blasphemous” material or content “related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security.” 

The regulations, named Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, will require social media giants to establish representative offices in Pakistan within three months and appoint a point person to answer complaints filed by relevant government officials. 

Pakistani authorities, under the new regulations, will be empowered to block services and levy fines of up to $3.24 million.  

Rollback demanded

Local and international civil liberties advocates have denounced the regulations as a heavy-handed attempt to silence political opposition and curtail freedom of expression in Pakistan. 

In a statement, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticized the Pakistani government for enacting “in secret” the social media regulatory measures, demanding they should immediately be rolled back. 

“These stringent but vague rules approved by Pakistan’s federal cabinet threaten the ability of journalists to report the news and communicate with their sources,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. 

Pakistani officials rejected the criticism, insisting the regulations are meant to hold social media companies accountable within the country’s legal and economic framework. 

Firdous Ashsiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, told reporters Thursday that the regulations were aimed at protecting citizens’ interests and national integrity against fake and baseless social media content. 

Until now, she said, the government had been unable to identify “who was creating fake pages and harming our socio-cultural and religious values” through social media platforms. Awan said that with the new authority, extremists spreading hate on the basis of “religion and race” would be deterred and exposed. 

She noted an estimated 73% of Pakistanis are internet users. “We will not take any step that is against the interest of these users,” Awan said, adding that social media companies can challenge the regulations in court. 

Broader effort urged

CPJ’s Butler called for the Pakistani government to put the rules on hold and seek broad consultations with legislators and civil society, including the media, on how to proceed with social media regulation. 

Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a member of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party and chair of the Senate Human Rights Committee, told CPJ the rules were seen “as an attempt to further restrict space of free discourse in Pakistan.” Khokhar vowed his party would oppose the measures in the parliament and the courts. 

The Digital Rights Foundation, a local organization promoting internet safety, denounced the social media rules as a blatant violation of free speech provisions in Pakistan’s constitution, saying the move would lead to self-censorship.