Social Media’s influence has become increasingly prevalent in recent times and its power in facilitating freedom of speech is undeniable. But when the authorities shut down all the sources of this power, who should be held responsible? And how do we navigate this situation when these measures effectively curb the dissenting voices? These questions require a nexus approach when it comes to Pakistan’s political landscape where there is so much diversity of opinion that a layman gets tangled in the web of the country’s politics. The recent social media blackout amid former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest has made these questions resurface.
This did not stagger the politically motivated youth of Pakistan as such blackouts find their roots in the 75-years-long history of Pakistan. The censorship of media can be traced back to the genesis of the media industry, starting from the rule of a military dictator who implemented the laws of pre-publication censorship in 1979. This censorship of print media was not even covert as the editors, on the orders of the authority, used to leave the spaces blank in newspapers in case of censorship of articles.
Although the electronic media has not been immune to these draconian laws in the past, the martial law under Gen Pervez Musharraf in 1999 marks the turning point for free media with the establishment of independent news channels. Benazir Bhutto’s tenure also initiated a distinct phase of open-mindedness by giving consent to cover opposition voices but it was short-lived and eventually reverted to one-sided coverage.
In recent times, social media’s emergence proved to be a blessing in disguise for journalists and dissenting voices in Pakistan, providing a platform to raise concerns. The youth of Pakistan preferred to rely on this medium to play their role as the major stakeholders of the state. This social media boom persisted briefly and soon faced the barricades in the form of censorships and blackouts. One of the first cases of social media censorship occurred in Pakistan in 2012 when the government imposed a ban on YouTube as a result of a movie on Islamophobia that led to demonstrations in countries with an overwhelming Muslim majority. After a four-year prohibition, the government, Google, and the owner of YouTube came to a settlement enabling the site to be launched in the country with the capacity for the authorities to block any undesirable content.
Pakistan then passed the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in 2017, which gave the government the authority to prohibit and ban any online information that posed a threat to public order, morality, or national security. International human rights organizations criticized this law for being ambiguous and giving the government unrestrained power to control internet information, even though it was designed to stop cybercrime.
The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) increased the government’s power over online information. As a result of this law’s provisions for data interception, surveillance, and online content restriction, there are questions regarding the government’s capacity to sway online opinion. The government has been utilizing a variety of strategies to limit free speech on the Internet, which has resulted in an increase in social media restrictions over the past few years.
Following violent protests by an Islamist group in May 2021, the government momentarily restricted access to several social media websites, including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. The platforms, according to the authorities, were being used to promote hate speech and foster aggression.
The government justified these blackouts as crucial steps to tackle security concerns posed by politically and religiously motivated groups and people who use social media to promote their propaganda and instigate violence, especially in the context of Pakistan’s continuing war against terrorism and political unrest it experiences most of the time. Whether or not these threats have been addressed by the government over the past half-century, the public is struggling to cope with the ever-increasing pace of the internet, online education, and e-commerce.
The state of freedom of speech has never been laudable but these measures to meet the security goals are threatening the freedom of speech on a smaller scale and e-commerce on a larger scale. Many business startups use social media to boost their small enterprises while fast internet connectivity is the bread and butter of freelancers. For instance, in 2021, it was reported that an online clothing business suffered a significant loss of income due to the social media blackout caused by the threat of protests by Tehreek Labaik Pakistan in 2021. A case study about social media censorship in Pakistan reported 41 blackouts between 2012 and 2017, raising questions about the validity of cyber laws in Pakistan.
Internet and social media platforms had a significant outage on May 9, in the aftermath of widespread protests in response to the arrest of former prime minister and PTI chairman Imran Khan. Amid political instability, the reinstatement of mobile broadband connections on May 12— 24 hours after Khan’s release— led to a general public outcry concerning internet freedom.
The tension between the government’s need for control and the people’s right to information lies at the very heart of this problem. It’s not simply a question of turning off social media for several hours or days; it’s about how these acts will affect the core principles of democracy. Amy well-functioning democratic system depends on the freedom of speech and expression, thus any attempt to restrict these rights must be taken seriously. Pakistan’s sudden social media shutdown is only one instance of the difficulties encountered by those who want to exercise their right to free speech in a quickly shifting political landscape.
We must have an open and honest conversation about how social media affects our democracy and how we can defend our fundamental liberties in the face of expanding government regulation as its influence grows.
To maintain individuals’ fundamental rights, such as their freedom of speech and access to information, governments must balance security concerns with those rights as the country progresses. The huge potential of social media and the internet to advance innovation and growth in the digital era can only be completely realized by Pakistan at that point.