Pakistan’s internet freedom ranking declined in election year: report

KARACHI: The Freedom House has declared Pakistan “Not Free” in terms of internet use for the seventh consecutive year in its global report released on Thursday.

The report showed that the country’s ranking had been worsening over the years.

The watchdog primarily focused on developments that occurred between June last year and May this year. It found that internet freedom was declining around the world and democracy was withering under the onslaught.

Freedom House observes political speech was vulnerable to restriction and intimidation

Out of the 65 countries assessed in Freedom on the Net, 26 experienced deterioration in terms of internet freedom and almost half of all declines were related to elections.

The Pakistan report has been authored by Digital Rights Foundation, a research-based advocacy non-governmental organisation which works on online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.

The report placed Pakistan at 73, out of 100 (100 being the worst), in Internet Freedom Status index for this year — two places worse than last year’s ranking. With a ranking of 19, out of 25, for Obstacles to Access index for 2017, the bar sits at 20 for 2018. Violations of User Rights index, which placed this country at 32 out of 40 last year, put it at 33 for the current year.

It observed that internet freedom was marked by a continuity of trends that were set in motion last year and had declined in some aspects following some dramatic incidents of intimidation and violence related to online activities.

Internet shutdown, a problematic cybercrime law, and cyber attacks against political dissenters contributed to the ongoing deterioration. Political speech was vulnerable to restriction as the country entered the election year, the report noted, adding that in the lead-up to the vote, bots supporting political parties surfaced online, including many spewing disinformation.

Invoking national security

The government, it regretted, continued to use national security to justify internet shutdown and restrictions on social media as well as other communication platforms. Social media campaigns disseminating false information have also had an adverse impact in offline spaces.

The report said internet users in Pakistan continued to be arrested and prosecuted for online expression, adding that torture and sexual violence during detention remained a pressing problem. It pointed out there had been complaints of detailed technical attacks targeting human rights defenders, their accounts and devices.

The freedom report stated technical attacks against websites of NGOs, opposition groups and activists were common in Pakistan, although many went unreported. In January and April last year, Dawn.com revealed that its website was subjected to sustained cyber attacks, the research added.

Among the key findings of the report was a continuation of internet shutdowns in the region formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and parts of Balochistan.

The report condemned the media blackout of dissent and social movement forces for criticising the military establishment.

In this context, the watchdog cited the pronouncement of death sentences for online speech and awarding of the first death penalty in a blasphemy trial over comments aired by a Christian man on WhatsApp.

It also called for enactment of a data protection law in the light of increasing instances of breach of users’ data.

According to the report, cross-border cyber attacks between Pakistan and India were commonplace during the period. In early 2017, when tensions escalated between the two countries, hackers from both sides claimed to have compromised important state websites, it added.

Nighat Dad, the Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, lamented the lack of progress over the last one year in terms of internet freedom: “We have seen the effects of the draconian laws and regulations that take root in an internet regulation culture where censorship and criminalisation of political speech have led to harsh punishments and has become the norm all over.”

Recommendations

The global Freedom on the Net report urged policymakers to ensure that all internet-related laws and practices adhered to international human rights law and standards. Governments, it suggested, should establish periodic reviews to assess whether their laws and practices regarding internet freedom conform to the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Any undue restrictions on internet freedom — including the blocking of political websites, internet shutdowns, and arrests for non-violent speech or extra-legal surveillance— should cease immediately,” the Freedom House report read.

It also called for enacting strong data protection laws to ensure transparency and control over personal data. Individuals should have control over their information and the right to access it, delete it and transfer it to a provider of their choosing.

It recommended a rapid-response fund to address internet freedom emergencies — such as shutdown, blocking of independent news sites, or the introduction of draconian censorship laws. The fund would allow swift deployment of resources to local activists and other frontline defenders.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2018

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