The disconnect on Digital Pakistan

On September 1, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked access to five dating and live streaming apps, including Tinder and Grindr, citing immoral or indecent content. This is only the latest instance of the regulator cracking down on apps using Pakistan’s Prevention on Electronic Crimes Act, commonly known as the Cyber Crimes Law, passed in 2016. While Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to end discriminatory law upon being elected into power, proposed regulations allow for greater state intervention on online content, including on social media platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter, even as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government is investing in digital and social media.

In this episode of Himal Podcasts, we speak to Ramsha Jahangir, a Karachi-based journalist covering technology and human rights about digital media, disinformation, surveillance and propaganda in Pakistan.

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This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it. 

Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Himal podcasts. I’m Raisa Wickrematunge and I’m here with Ramsha Jahangir, a journalist based in Karachi and covering technology and human rights. Today. We’re going to have a conversation on digital media, propaganda surveillance, and disinformation. Welcome to Himal podcasts Ramsha.

Ramsha Jahangir: Hello, how are you?

RW: Good, thanks.

So just to kick things off, I actually wanted to begin at the end of one of your recent articles where you said if Twitter trends are to be believed, Pakistan is moving forward, but on the ground, trying times for the country are far from over, and you were kind of talking about PTI’s, increasing reliance on digital propaganda. So I wanted to start off by asking you, what is this new digital media wing and how is it different from PTI’s social media presence?

RJ: So, like you said, PTI’s, the online visibility is a central plank in PTI’s governance. And this is how it has been before the PTI came into government. It is, PTI has been credited and rightly so for introducing digital politics in Pakistan. So naturally when they’ve come into power, they’re formulising their digital presence and also increasing the ways they formulise and communicate online with the public directly, as part of the same efforts they’ve introduced a digital media wing. The idea is that they work separately from the social media team of PTI because that is a political wing and this is the digital media wing which will be looking at the state machinery online and they’re supposed to make, for instance, accounts verified, of ministries, of government accounts, so official accounts verified, increase the online presence of the government, post updates and come up with additional strategy on digital diplomacy for instance. So the idea is not to be political, but, you know, increase state presence on social media. And then also, come up with a strategy to deal with fake news – something that the PTI government is very interested in. And a lot of their efforts are to do with tackling fake news online and even disinformation and misinformation. So one part of the digital media wing is also to come up with a strategy to deal with that online.

RW: That’s interesting. As you mentioned, the PTI is actually claiming to be trying to tackle some of these issues like disinformation and child pornography and hate speech, through these new citizen protection rules. So I just wanted to ask, why are these rules, what do they consist of and why are they so controversial? And will they actually address the issues that they are saying they will?

RJ: So the rules are a legal requirement under its parent legislation, which is the Pakistan cybercrime law 2016, in the cybercrime law, It’s a requirement for the legal authority, which is Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, to come up with rules that streamline how content is moderated online. But what has happened is because the parent legislation is so controversial and has been misused in the past to silence dissent and journalists being critical of the government and even activists online, there have been multiple cases of cases being filed against journalists over their tweets or online activity. So there is obviously a lot of mistrust in the use of the law because the framing of the law is so big and it allows misuse. So there’s a lot of apprehension regarding its use.

What the rules have done is, and the rules haven’t been finalised. There is a consultation process where tech companies [met with] stakeholders, the local human rights stakeholders had boycotted the consultation process, because they said they wanted the rules to be officially withdrawn first. So there were a lot of legal loopholes in the process as well, that they were concerned about. And they also, because of the mistrust, they said that the process they felt was not as transparent. So this is why it also became controversial. And one of the bigger things was that the rules in the current form that they were presented, had a lot of controversial parameters, which are not allowed in the parent legislation. For instance, a national coordinator is going to be appointed, who will decide what content is removed, what requests are sent, building the whole process will be centralised and the National Board is going to decide everything. The parent legislation, the Cybercrime law does not allow that. The other was that they were asking all tech companies to comply with all requests that the Pakistan government is going to send for removal or information requests. Again, that is a very gunpoint strategy because provided that they’re not going to comply with the requests, they might face a ban or they might face consequences. And there was also a requirement for all tech companies to open local offices in Pakistan, because they don’t have a presence right now. So localisation of data, localisation of bringing their presence to Pakistan so that they can further crackdown and regulate online content at ease was the apparent perception. But the rules are yet to be finalised and released, and we’re hoping that after the consultation process, some of the major things, like national coordinator will be stripped off because of the legal concerns that it’s not part of the parent legislation.

RW: Right, so it sounds like there’s this existing legal infrastructure which is being used to silence dissent. And now there’s these new proposed rules, which are, as you said, still being built, but which serve to build on that and crack down, cause more shrinking of space maybe. I wanted to ask, what are some of the strategies that the PTI is using to promote their message and to silence dissent apart from the legal infrastructure that’s in place and who are the targets of these kinds of tacts?

RJ: So what’s happened in the past 2 to 3 years is increasing weaponisation of social media. And this is through weaponisation of the term fake news, through the weaponisation of the term disinformation, but more fake news. And really obviously, consequently, the frequent targets of these kinds of tactics are journalists, the media organisations. I would not say that this problem is limited to the PTI, but of course, because it is all political parties and the whole social media space has become part of the problem. But why the PTI is more important here is because they are the government, they’re the pioneers of digital politics and they’re the first to start and become – mobilise online. So naturally they have a large supporter base, they’re more structured. Things are more coordinated for the PTI online and that we’ve seen on the way they weaponise fake news.

So there are thousands and dozens of accounts that are debunking so called fake news, that what they deem as fake news, targeting journalists online, discrediting their work, discrediting media organisations, run smear trends against journalists, or even people critical of the government and then scores and scores of random accounts with the PTI flag or Imran Khan in their bio. ‘I’m going to come and attack you, harass you, intimidate you,’ threats in some cases. So what has happened is that there’s a lot of mistrust in the media and the media – mainstream media has been portrayed as an enemy of the state or that there is a lot of unfair criticism of the government and that they’re biased or that they’re doing propaganda. So this means because of their large supporter base, they have this benefit that there are more and more supporters of the PTI. Then more and more people who are there, coordinate, run trends, jump on accounts, harass you, intimidate you, like I said, even report your tweets and take screenshots of your tweets or dig up old tweets from the past and say, you know, come back at you and say something in defense, if you’ve published a very critical report or you’ve said something that is according to them, not true.

RW: And what impact have these kinds of tactics had on freedom of expression online? Are there certain groups who have been less outspoken as a result of these measures?

RJ: So as we speak only recently, a group of women journalists, including myself, released a statement, asking for the PTI government and officials related with the PTI government, as well as other political parties to come up with a policy, a social media policy that discourages abuse and intimidation online, discourages their supporters from this kind of conduct. Policy has not come forth – we have written to the National Committee on Human Rights and on the subject, but we’re yet to see any action from any party, not just the PTI. So a lot of women journalists are naturally, because women in our society are already vulnerable, offline as well. So women journalists, more and more of them are going offline because of these constant attacks, abuse and harassment. Besides women journalists, it’s also people who are mostly critical of the government. They are accused of propaganda, they’re accused of spreading fake news, they’re accused of being enemies of the country. I mean, it’s affecting the overall political discourse online, when less and less people would want to cause something political because no matter if you’re right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. You post anything political, you’re bound to receive the same treatment, you’re bound to receive the same kind of attacks and harassment and discrediting you, so more and more people don’t want to post things online.

I’ll give you my example when my recent piece on PTI came out, although in my opinion, I felt that I did try to balance it out by quoting PTI officials who are accused of these things. But despite that I felt that people don’t even read the story, but just because you’ve written something about the PTI, be it even positive, they’re going to come at you. And then after that I stopped reporting my story on Twitter, because I was like, I don’t want to, because there were so many notifications for days and days that I had to mute notifications because it’s not worth it at the end of the day. So I limited my online activity after that because no one wants to go through this kind of relentless attacks and notifications – this barrage of notifications that you get once you post something political. So yes, definitely it’s having an impact on freedom of expression online with more and more people choosing to go offline or being limited or calculated about what they post.

RW: Right, so that sounds quite worrying. And, you know, in addition to all of these tactics, there have also been reports that the government has been blocking apps like BIGO and games like PUBG and has also issued a final warning to TikTok as well. Do you think that there’s some dissonance in the party’s willingness to invest in some technologies such as, you know, setting up a digital media wing and yet their willingness to crackdown on companies like these? What do you think the government is worried about through these apps?

RJ: Definitely there’s a disconnect, for instance this government was on about their Digital Pakistan initiative, but then we saw because of some political differences the Digital Pakistan head resigned, abruptly. And now we don’t know what became of the Digital Pakistan vision, if there is anyone even heading it or what, whatever happened to those promises that were made back in December. So there is this disconnect of, from the faulty promise of digital Pakistan, and then we also see simultaneously the CP rules or this crackdown on apps in the name of morality, immorality, and immoral content or objectionable content. So this all stems from the problematic cybercrime law that we have, and this was passed before the PTI government came into power, but the PTI government is not doing anything different. They’re also using the same laws, they’re using the same tactics and through these rules, we saw that the motivations are the same, they were very very critical of the past government – the previous government that passed the cybercrime law. But now they’re repeating the same mistakes and not correcting them by introducing similar legislations, similar solutions, cracking down on apps. And I also feel that while they do say that they’re all about digital investment and that they want companies to invest in Pakistan, through these methods, by cracking down or by ordering companies to behave a certain way or to comply with their requests or face legal action or face bans, this is not a very friendly way or a very inviting approach. So I feel they’re not, there’s definitely a disconnect and I definitely feel that they need to reconsider all their approaches if they’re serious about inviting digital investment, but so far it seems that there is, I mean, yeah, they definitely need to reconsider because so far it’s just talking points and actions show otherwise.

RW: I also wanted to talk about, you know, the current situation in terms of COVID-19 and something that we’ve noticed actually throughout the Southasian region, which is that the governments have been using technology both to solve problems, but also to collect data, for example, through coronavirus surveillance apps. And I just wanted to ask whether there’s any concern or any conversation about the privacy implications around using these kind of apps and you know, what happens after the data is harvested. I just wanted to get a sense of what the conversation is around that.

RJ: So at present, of course, COVID-19 surveillance is not as big an issue as it was initially, when COVID-19 outbreak broke [out] in Pakistan. The prime minister announced on television that they’re using a terrorist system to monitor and track COVID-19 patients and to limit the spread of the virus. So that was also very problematic. To date there is no SOP or any detailed document that defines the parameters and the type of system that is being used, its capabilities, we don’t have – there are too many question marks. Also regarding privacy concerns like you mentioned, so a French researcher had pointed out some loopholes in the government’s main COVID-19 app, which is a track and trace app. So it has integrated other options such as risk assessment, but it allows you to mark your location if you want to, it’s voluntary, but if you want, you can identify your location, exact location on the app and identify as a COVID-19 patient to help others in the area trace a hotspot.

But what happened is after the French researcher pointed those flaws out, it is then that the government decided to reconsider and do a security analysis of the app. But before that, there was no, there was only a two paragraph long privacy policy of the app. So that was very concerning. Then at the same time, a lot of information, there were a lot of data collection portals that were introduced during COVID-19, for instance, Tiger Force was inducted by the government, by the prime minister – he announced this initiative and a lot of information about them were collected through online means and some days later, we find out that the private information of the Tiger Force volunteers, including their identity card numbers, their addresses, their phone numbers, their names, were all being circulated on WhatsApp. And despite raising this concern in the media or on social media, there was no response, there was no ownership of the leak, or even if that is a problem. So while I feel that the government does not take privacy seriously, it is definitely not a major concern in Pakistan at the moment. There’s also no data protection law, although it is under consideration and they’re saying that it will be passed when the CP rules are introduced, but as of now, there is no accountability for the leaks and things going wrong. They’ve come up with data collection methods, but they haven’t come up with a counter strategy – what happens when the data is leaked? And when we saw that it was indeed leaked, there was no ownership or accountability or mechanism or safety, or even acknowledgement of the issue as an issue.

RW: Given, you know, all these things that we’ve discussed, actually over the past few minutes. And given that there’s this architecture being put in place in terms of legislation, I wanted to ask whether there are any kind of movements or initiatives, which are kind of pushing back against the changes and raising these kinds of concerns, or even just movements, which are themed around freedom of expression broadly, and how are they pushing back given this increasingly tense atmosphere?

RJ: So one movement that recently started was Attacks Won’t Silence Us by these women journalists that I mentioned, against harassment and intimidation online. So this is very recent that there is a push back against these tactics. Nothing has come of it, but at least the discourse has started and the issue has been, has been brought to mainstream discourse. Besides that, digital rights stakeholders have pushed back against CP rules, there was a strong, strong backlash, which is why the government had to reconsider and go into a consultation process. Even tech companies gave a very strong pushback. And for the first time actually, globally also, the tech companies came together and released an industry response, which is from the AIC and had pushed back against the government and said, this is not going to work, these are very controlling tactics and these are not practical at all and will be very detrimental for the future of digital investment in Pakistan. So definitely now there has been a very coordinated and there has been some pushback, but despite that, I don’t think there is anything that can really stop the government because as we speak, apps continue to be blocked and threatened against a ban, harassment continues online, we still don’t have anything, anyone looking at the Digital Pakistan initiative. So yeah, it’s very tricky what, what the future has in store for Pakistan’s digital future.

RW: Thank you for making the time to speak with us, Ramsha.

RJ: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

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