Pakistan has seen an increase in online activism in recent past, despite numerous social and political obstacles to internet access. At the same time, the government has been adopting various measures to control the internet on the pretext of combating terrorism. While internet penetration in the country has continued to improve throughout 2012-2013, internet freedom in Pakistan looks increasingly precarious, a trend that could have significant consequences for the country’s socioeconomic development as well as the human rights activists.
Pakistani authorities have often deliberately obstructed ICT access throughout the country over the past years. In February 2013, the upper house of parliament passed the Fair Trial Act 2012 which essentially allows security agencies to seek a judicial warrant to monitor private communications. This empowers intelligence bodies to listen in on conversations and communications of Pakistani citizens, which is a clear violation of individual privacy rights.
The latest in this list of actively pro-censorship policies is that the Sindh Government had decided to block access to popular internet telephony services and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, which they say militants use for communication. The justification presented by the Sindh government seems unreasonable in the eyes of nearly all serious-minded analysts who cite that giving up the right to free speech and access to information is the same as conceding to terrorists. At the same time, services such as Skype, Viber, Tango and WhatsApp have become increasing popular among Pakistani smartphone users trimming down communication costs.
Bans are usually incredibly easy to circumvent, as is also the case with YouTube ban in Pakistan. Needless to state, the slippery slope is one which inevitably ends in the erosion of freedom of speech. And the victims are only human rights activists whereas terrorist groups such as TTP continue to run well-known Facebook pages.
Earlier, a statement by the Sindh Information Minister read, “Criminal elements and terrorists have smartly switched to these networks. Previously, they communicated through their cellular phones. Now they have switched to networks to which we do not have access. Until then, we unfortunately have to announce to all citizens of Sindh that these services will be inaccessible all over the province for the next three months.” He fell short of revealing exactly how the ban would curtail terrorists' communications. No details were revealed either as to what sort of filtering/blocking mechanism would be used for the said ban. The decision seems to be a hasty reaction by the government rather than a deliberated and a well-thought-out move.
Various measures to combat terrorism and their impact on freedom of expression have been a matter of extensive debate in Pakistan for a number of years. At the same time, Pakistan is subject to international laws protecting the right to freedom of expression, in particular Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Freedom of expression may be restricted in order to protect public order and national security as the State has a duty to protect its people from terrorist threats. However, international human rights standards mandate that human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, must be respected in such a conflict and cannot be arbitrarily limited.
In the past too, it was cited how giving up individual rights and striking down freedom of speech is tantamount to conceding to the terrorists. The government must ensure that while fighting this fight, it preserves basic human rights, a trait which distinguishes a democratic nation from the rabid ideology of the extremists. The ban on telephony services and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications such as Tango, Viber, Skype in Sindh fails to strike a fair balance between combating terrorism and safeguarding fundamental human rights. Therefore, it is highly lamentable and GoP must not violate basic human right.
n The writer is a Pakistan based Tech researcher with specialisation in database management, and software development.