Internet freedom declined during this report’s coverage period due to authorities’ increased blocking of political, social, and cultural websites. The general election environment in July 2018 saw connectivity restrictions and increased disinformation. Meanwhile, authorities upped their efforts to silence critical journalists and activists using a range of techniques. Users were again sentenced to death on charges of posting blasphemous content online, although their convictions are under appeal.
Pakistan holds regular elections under a competitive multiparty political system. However, the military exerts enormous influence over security and other policy issues, intimidates the media, and enjoys impunity for indiscriminate or extralegal use of force. The authorities impose selective restrictions on civil liberties, and some Islamist militant groups carry out attacks on religious minorities and other perceived opponents.
June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019
Over 800,000 websites are blocked, including political, religious, and social content. Voice of America’s websites in Urdu and Pashto were temporary inaccessible during the coverage period, as was the website of the leftist Awami Workers Party (see B1).
Inauthentic content and automated accounts impacted the online landscape. Bots supporting various political parties surfaced ahead of the July 2018 general elections, while Facebook remove content it claimed to be linked to the Pakistani military’s public relations department (see B5).
In December 2018, two brothers were sentenced to death for blasphemy, for allegedly sharing “disrespectful material” about the prophet Mohammad on their website in 2011 (see C3).
The government increased social media monitoring, announcing a new system to target extremism, hate speech, and antinational content. The announcement came a month before the Interior Ministry launched an investigation into journalists and activists supporting murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi on social media (see C5).
Activists and bloggers faced physical attacks and death threats during the coverage period. Social media activist and Waqt TV journalist Gul Bukhari was abducted by unknown persons and returned a few hours later in June (see C7).
A Obstacles to Access
Underdeveloped infrastructure limits internet penetration rates in Pakistan, particularly in rural areas. However, mobile internet access is increasing. Pakistani authorities frequently disable internet access during times of perceived unrest; meanwhile, already long-term denial of service in marginalized areas persisted during the coverage period.
|Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections?||16|
Internet penetration registered only marginal increases during the reporting period. There are 67 million broadband connections in Pakistan, an increase of 10 million since the last report.1 A majority of internet subscribers come from mobile broadband and 3G and 4G internet.2 The Inclusive Internet Index 2019, a publication of the Economist, ranked Pakistan at 84 out of 100 in terms of availability, determined by quality and breadth of available infrastructure.3 According to the most recent data available from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), just under 16 percent of Pakistani residents accessed the internet in 2017.4
The speed-testing company Ookla ranked Pakistan’s mobile broadband download speed at 14.03 Mbps in mid-2018.5 Infrastructural limitations are acute in rural localities, limiting broadband access.
Damaged or inadequate infrastructure also periodically disrupts access, although there were no major internet disruptions due to infrastructural issues during the coverage period, as there had been in 2017.6 In August of that year, damage to an international submarine cable system, I-ME-WE (India-Middle East-Western Europe), led to a nationwide disruption in service for approximately 48 hours.7 Customers reported slow internet speeds in August 2018,8 as another international cable system, SEA-ME-WE 4 (Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4), that is key to internet access in Pakistan, was under repair; the disruption highlighted the need for diversified internet infrastructure.
Power outages are a serious problem in Pakistan, and also limit connectivity.9
- 1. “Overview,” infographic, Telecom Indicators, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), last updated October 2019, https://www.pta.gov.pk//en/telecom-indicators.
- 2. “Annual Broadband Subscribers by Technology,” chart, Telecom Indicators, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), last updated October 2019, https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/telecom-indicators/1.
- 3. “Availability,” The Inclusive Internet Index 2019, The Economist, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/PK/performance/i….
- 4. “Country ICT Data - Percentage of Individuals Using the Internet,” chart, Statistics, ITU, 2018, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx.
- 5. Usman Hanif, “Pakistan’s 4G broadband speed faster than India’s,” The Express Tribune, July 21, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1762876/2-pakistans-4g-broadband-speed-fas….
- 6. Farooq Baloch, “Undersea Cable Cut Affects 50% of Pakistan's Internet Traffic,” Express Tribune, March 27, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20130329202321/http://tribune.com.pk/story/….
- 7. “Pakistan experiences slow internet due to 'outage in international submarine cable systems,’” The News International, August 5 2017, https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/221578-Pakistan-to-face-slow-internet….
- 8. “Slow internet service wreaks havoc across country,” Pakistan Today, August 15, 2018, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2018/08/15/slow-internet-service-wreak….
- 9. Tariq Ahmed Saeedi, “Pakistan’s monthly power outages among highest in Asia: ADB,” The News International, March 1, 2017, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/189340-Pakistans-monthly-power-outages….
|Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons?||03|
There are serious inequalities in access to information and communications technology (ICTs) based on geographic location, gender, and socioeconomic status.
While the cost of internet has fallen considerably in the last few years,1 access remains out of reach for the majority of the population, and high taxes on internet service push prices higher. Pakistan ranked 47 out of 100 countries surveyed in the Inclusive Internet Index 2019 report’s affordability index, which examines cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the internet marketplace.2 The country ranked at 67 for price alone.
The affordability and taxation of telecommunications has been a source of public debate and legal wrangling. In June 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan suspended all taxes collected by telecommunications companies from their customers.3 However, in April 2019, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling and thus reinstated the tax.4 While the ruling was in effect and customer-paid taxes were suspended—from July 2018 until January 2019—the Federal Board of Revenue reported a slight fall in tax collection from telecommunication services.5
Mobile phones were still taxed during this period, as Pakistan’s mini-budget, released in early 2019, imposed import duty taxes on phones that cost more than $350. This import tax considerably increased the price of mobile phones,6 and prompted complaints among mobile service providers it resulted in a reduction in the number of people using 4G services.7
Parts of western Pakistan lack internet access, in many cases due to underdevelopment or ongoing conflict. Areas in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)8 and Balochistan, for example, have difficult terrain, and a lack both of political will and of resources prevent infrastructural improvements.9 Smartphone penetration rates were estimated at 30 percent nationally in 2017; approximately 50 million people did not have mobile phones, according to the same study.10
Government initiatives to provide access to remote areas have progressed in recent years. In 2017, the Punjab government installed 192 free internet hotspots Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Multan11—though Pakistan’s poor record of protecting user privacy may make some users reluctant to use them (see C5). In January 2018, it was announced that more than 10 billion Pakistani rupees ($81 million) worth of projects were to be launched, awarded by the Universal Service Funds (USF), to provide broadband service to remote areas, particularly Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the FATA region. Private investment is also moving into less connected areas; in October 2018, StormFiber announced that its Fiber to The Home (FTTH) infrastructure was expanding to the provincial capital of Quetta, in Balochistan.12
Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and cultural resistance have also limited the proliferation of ICTs.13 The digital divide between men and women in Pakistan is among the highest in the world as a result of religious, social, and cultural restrictions on women owning devices.14 As per one study, Pakistani women are 43 percent less likely to use the internet than men.15 Even women who have access are likely to have their digital activities heavily monitored by family members and others. Women who are active online report high levels of online harassment that discourages greater utilization of ICTs (see C7).
- 1. “Average monthly Internet cost in Pakistan low,” Daily Times, October 3, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20151007203900/http://www.dailytimes.com.pk….
- 2. “Affordability,” The Inclusive Internet Index 2019, The Economist, 2019, https://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com/explore/countries/PK/performance/i….
- 3. Kalbe Ali, “All taxes collected by mobile phone companies suspended,” Dawn, June 14, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1414047.
- 4. Hasnaat Malik, “SC restores taxes on mobile phone cards,” The Express Tribune, April 24, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20190428221110/https://tribune.com.pk/story….
- 5. Shahnawaz Akhter, “Income tax revenue from telecom services fall 85pc to Rs4.4bln in Jul-Jan,” The News International, March 12, 2019, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/442690-income-tax-revenue-from-telecom….
- 6. Mehtab Haider, “Govt to slap more taxes on imported vehicles, iPhones, cigarettes,” The News International, January 8, 2019, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/415991-govt-to-slap-more-taxes-on-impo….
- 7. Nasir Jamal, “Cell phone operators demand cut in handset tax,” Dawn, March 7, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1468110.
- 8. FATA was absorbed into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in 2018, per a constitutional amendment. Danish Hussain and Irfan Ghauri, “Senate passes FATA-KP merger bill with 71-5 vote,” The Express Tribune, May 25, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1718734/1-ppp-pti-set-throw-weight-behind-….
- 9. “Expansion of OFC to Union Councils,” presentation, Universal Service Fund, July 9th, 2019, https://usf.org.pk/UserFiles/file/Publications/Draft%20presentation%20v….
- 10. Shahid Kamal, “12.5pc withholding tax on mobile recharge high: PTA,” Dawn, December 4 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1374450.
- 11. Rameez Khan, “Three Punjab cities get free WiFi hotspots,” The Express Tribune, February 1, 2017, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1313247/keeping-people-connected-three-pun….
- 12. “Quetta added to high-speed internet network,” The Express Tribune, October 23, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1831763/1-quetta-added-high-speed-internet….
- 13. Arzak Khan, “Gender Dimensions of Information Communication Technologies for Development,” (Karlstad: University of Karlstad Press, 2011) doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1829989
- 14. Ismail Sheikh, “Pakistan has world's highest gender gap in mobile phone usage,” The Express Tribune, November 23, 2016, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1239596/pakistan-worlds-highest-gender-gap….
- 15. Jamal Shahid, “Most Pakistanis do not know what the internet is: report,” Dawn, November 12, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1444979.
|Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?||16|
Authorities frequently disrupt telecommunication services during protests, elections, and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns. During the 2018 general elections, mobile internet services were notably suspended in parts of Balochistan, and in all of FATA during both the election period and the lead-up.
Frequent shutdowns continued throughout this report’s coverage period. In July 2018, mobile and internet services were shut down in parts of Lahore ahead of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's return to Pakistan from London before the general elections, impeding rallies of supporters welcoming him back.1 In September, mobile services were suspended in Islamabad and other populous areas due to security concerns surrounding processions scheduled during the Ashura holiday.2 In October, mobile networks were closed in Bannu in an attempt to thwart a peaceful protest organized by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a grassroots civil rights movement.3 In November, mobile internet services were suspended in some parts of Sindh and Punjab on account of 12th Rabiul Awwal.4 Also in November 2018, mobile networks were shut down in all major cities during protests by right-wing groups that erupted after the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.5
During the coverage period, 3G, 4G, and LTE mobile internet services were also shut down in areas that receive comparatively little media attention, such as the less developed regions of Baluchistan,6 where several districts have had no mobile internet service since February 2017. While there has been no official justification for the shutdown, vague explanations based on national security grounds have been offered.7 Likewise, no deadline has been provided for restoration.8 A citizen challenged the shutdown at the Turbat bench of the High Court, but withdrew the case, reportedly after security officials pressured their lawyer to drop the matter.9 Long-term shutdowns have also been implemented in restive border regions, including one lasting more than three years in ex-FATA.10 In an encouraging development, mobile internet services were restored in Bajour in March 2019, after almost three years of restrictions.11
In July 2018, just before the general election, the Ministry of Interior ordered that mobile internet be suspended in six districts of Balochistan,12 a move that effectively restricted the use of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) mobile reporting mechanism. In November 2018, a parliamentary committee called on security agencies to review connectivity restrictions in the areas.13
Section 54 of the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act grants authorities the power to suspend services. While the law as written may only be invoked during a state of emergency, in practice it has been used to justify routine shutdowns, prompting a number of court cases.14
In February 2018, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) held in a landmark ruling that mobile network shutdowns on the pretext of public safety under Section 54(3) of the PTA, including mobile-based internet suspension, infringed upon the fundamental rights of citizens and were thus illegal.15 However, in March 2018, the IHC suspended the judgment and the matter is still pending before the court.16 The IHC was originally hearing a separate petition challenging telecommunications shutdowns during Pakistan Day celebrations.
The state exerts considerable influence over the internet backbone. The predominantly state-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) controls the country’s largest internet exchange point, Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE), which has three main nodes—in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore—and 42 smaller nodes nationwide. PIE operated the nation’s sole internet backbone until 2009, when additional bandwidth was offered by TransWorld Associates on its private fiber-optic cable, TW1.17
PTCL also controls access to three international undersea fiber-optic cables: SEA-ME-WE 3 (South-East Asia-Middle East -Western Europe 3) and SEA-ME-WE 4 connect Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe; and I-ME-WE (India-Middle East-Western Europe) links India, the Middle East, and Western Europe.18 In July 2017, PTCL joined the AAE-1 (Asia-Africa-Europe-1) cable system. The 25,000-kilometer-long cable was built as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and provides the lowest latency route to several countries across three continents.19 In February 2019, the Pak-China fiber optic, running from Rawalpindi to Khunjerab, became active.20 The project is owned by the military-run Special Communications Organization (SCO) and the contractor is Huawei. Internet rights groups have raised concerns regarding the dangers of a proposed terrestrial cable between Pakistan and China, given China’s highly restrictive internet model.21
- 1. “Nawaz Sharif's return prompts govt to suspend mobile phone, internet services,” The News International, July 13, 2018, https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/341267-nawaz-sharifs-return-prompts-g….
- 2. The Ashura holiday is observed most visibly by the Shiite sect, which is a minority group in Pakistan and often the target of sectarian terrorist groups. “Cellular networks jammed in different parts of country for 9, 10 Muharram,” Pakistan Today, last updated September 20, 2018, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2018/09/20/mobile-phone-service-suspen….
- 3. Berhan Taye, “Pakistan shuts down the internet three times in one week,” Access Now, November 6, 2018, https://www.accessnow.org/pakistan-shuts-down-the-internet-three-times-….
- 4. 12th Rabiul Awwal, also referred to as “Eid Miladun Nabi (S.A.W),” is observed by Sunni Muslims as the date of birth of the prophet Muhammad. “Cellular Services Suspended In Few Cities Today,” Abb Takk, November 21, 2018, https://abbtakk.tv/en/cellular-services-to-remain-suspended-today/.
- 5. Mubasher Bukhari and Saad Sayeed, “Pakistan shuts phone networks as Islamists protest over Christian woman,” Reuters, November 2, 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-pakistan-blasphemy/pakistan-shuts-pho….
- 6. “Mobile internet service suspended in parts of Balochistan,” Pakistan Today, last updated February 22, 2017, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2017/02/22/mobile-internet-service-sus…; “Security concerns result in suspension of 3G, 4G services in parts of Balochistan”, Daily Times, February 22, 2017, http://dailytimes.com.pk/pakistan/22-Feb-17/security-concerns-result-in….
- 7. Shah Meer Baloch, “Balochistan’s Great Internet Shutdown,” The Diplomat, March 25, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/balochistans-great-internet-shutdown/.
- 8. Mohammad Zafar, “Balochistan districts without internet for one year,” The Express Tribune, February 26, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1644804/1-balochistan-districts-without-in….
- 9. Baloch, “Balochistan’s Great Internet Shutdown.”
- 10. With the passage of the historic thirty-first amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan (Constitution (Thirty-First) Amendment Bill), passed by the National Assembly on May 24 2018. The FATA region is now part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
- 11. “Mobile internet service restored in Bajaur,” Dawn, March 19, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/amp/1470511.
- 12. “Mobile internet suspended in six districts of Balochistan,” The News International, July 21, 2018, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/344484-mobile-internet-suspended-in-si….
- 13. Jamal Shahid, “Suspension of internet service termed denial of basic rights,” Dawn, November 24, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1447331.
- 14. Arsalan Ashraf, Lucy Purdon, and Ben Wagner, “Security v Access: The Impact of Mobile Network Shutdowns, Case Study Telenor Pakistan,” Internet Policy Observatory (September 2015): http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=in….
- 15. Judgment reported as PLD 2018 Islamabad 243. Hija Kamran, “Islamabad High Court Ruled Mobile Network Shutdowns Illegal,” Digital Rights Foundation, February 27, 2018, https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/islamabad-high-court-ruled-mobile-ne….
- 16. Rizwan Shehzad, “IHC allows cellular service suspension for time being,” The Express Tribune, March 20, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1665210/1-ihc-allows-cellular-service-susp….
- 17. OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile—Pakistan,” August 6, 2012, https://opennet.net/research/profiles/pakistan.
- 18. “PTCL Expects 20pc Growth with Launch of IMEWE Cable: Official,” The News International, December 22, 2010, https://www.thenews.com.pk/archive/print/275822-ptcl-expects-20pc-growt….
- 19. “PTCL inks agreement to build one of the largest Submarine Cable System,” PTCL, 2014, https://ptcl.com.pk/Home/PressReleaseDetail/?ItemId=394&linkId=130.; Jason McGee-Abe, “AAE-1 subsea cable lands at Crete,” Capacity Media, April 19, 2016, https://www.capacitymedia.com/articles/3546748/AAE-1-subsea-cable-lands….
- 20. Haider Nasim, “Pak-China fibre optic link activated for commercial use,” The Express Tribune, February 2, 2019, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1901975/8-pak-china-fibre-optic-link-activ….
- 21. Saleha Zahid, “Bolo Bhi Statement on the Recent Internet Disruption in Pakistan,” Bolo Bhi, August 7, 2017, http://bolobhi.org/bolo-bhi-statement-on-the-recent-internet-disruption….
|Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers?||36|
Pakistan has a combination of private and publicly run service provides. During the coverage period, the state regulator abruptly raised operating fees for two major telecom service providers, prompting court cases that remain ongoing.
In 2019, abrupt changes to the telecom renewal policy threatened the ability of the two major telecom companies to operate.1 The licenses of Jazz and Telenor were set to expire on May 25, 2019. On May 9, the PTA released its Policy Directive for Renewal of Cellular Mobile Licenses 2019,2 which set the renewal fee at $450 million—nearly double the amount the operators paid in 2004 for licenses acquired at auction, to be paid by a new August 21 deadline.3 The telecoms in response brought a court challenge against the PTA. As of the beginning of September, the PTA accepted a payment of $224.6 million from each telecom for license renewal, but the legal cases continue.4
According to licensing information published by the PTA, the government regulator, in 2018, there were 12 licensed wireless local loop (WLL) operators,5 16 long distance and international (LDI) operators,6 and 21 operational fixed local loop (FLL) operators.7 Several dozen licenses had also been issued for companies, providing value-added services in the telecommunications sector.8 The PTA exerts significant control over internet and mobile providers through hefty licensing fees and various bureaucratic processes.9
The predominantly state-owned PTCL has long dominated the broadband market.10 A Telecom Policy established in 2015 aimed to instill competitive practices in the telecom sector, though it led to overlapping regulatory powers for the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom (MoITT) and the Competition Commission Pakistan (CCP).
There are four mobile operators in Pakistan.11 Pakistan Mobile Communications Limited (PMCL) is operated by its parent company VEON, which is headquartered in Amsterdam, and had a market share of 37 percent in 2019. It has begun merging the Mobilink and Warid brand names under the name Jazz to control the country’s largest mobile subscriber base.12 Jazz’s main competitors are Pak Telecom Mobile Limited (PTML), which is a PTCL subsidiary operating as Ufone (market share of 14 percent), Telenor Pakistan (market share of 27 percent), which is part of a Norwegian multinational company, and China Mobile Pakistan (CMPak), with a market share of 22 percent.13
- 1. “PTA finally issues guidelines for telecom licence renewal,” The Express Tribune, May 12, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20190820102119/https://tribune.com.pk/story….
- 2. Government of Pakistan Ministry of Information Technology (IT & Telecom Division), Policy Directive Under Section 8(2) of the Pakistan Telecommunications (Re-organization) Act 1996 for Renewal of Cellular Mobile Licenses in 2019, No.2-4/2018-DT, Islamabad: 9 May, 2019, https://pta.gov.pk/assets/media/policy_directive_renewal_cellular_mob_l….
- 3. Mehreen Zahra Malik and Khursid Ahmed, “Pay $450mln renewal fee or licenses expire on Aug 21, PTA orders Jazz and Telenor,” Arab News, last updated August 01, 2019, https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1533531/pakistan.
- 4. Fahad Shabbir, “Govt Receives Licence Renewal Fee From Two Telecos,” UrduPoint, September 4, 2019, https://www.urdupoint.com/en/business/govt-receives-licence-renewal-fee…; Javed Hussain, “Telenor Pakistan offers to pay $224.6m for licence renewal,” Dawn, August 21, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1500824.
- 5. Wireless Local Loop (“WLL”) licenses are issued for the provision of fixed line telecommunication services within a Telecom Region using mediums including wireless, with limited mobility. See: “Master List of WLL Licensees for Pakistan,” Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, https://www.pta.gov.pk/assets/media/wll_list_140218.pdf.
- 6. Long Distance and International (LDI) licenses are issued for the provision of end to end communication between points that are located in Pakistan with points that are located outside of Pakistan. “LDI Operators for Pakistan,” Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, https://www.pta.gov.pk/media/ldi_lic_list_011117.pdf.
- 7. Fixed Local Loop (“FLL”) licenses are issued for the provision of fixed line telecommunication services within a Telecom Region using medium excluding wireless. See: “List of FLL Operators,” Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, https://www.pta.gov.pk/assets/media/ll_lic_250418.pdf.
- 8. “List of New/Converted CVAS Licensees,” Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, http://www.pta.gov.pk/media/new_cvas_100217.pdf.
- 9. “Functions,” About PTA, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/functions.
- 10. Adam Senft et al., O Pakistan, We Stand on Guard for Thee: An Analysis of Canada-based Net sweeper’s Role in Pakistan’s Censorship Regime, Citizen Lab, June 20, 2013, https://citizenlab.ca/2013/06/o-pakistan/.
- 11. “Master List of Cellular Mobile Operators in Pakistan,” Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, https://www.pta.gov.pk/assets/media/master-list-of-mobile-operators-30-….
- 12. Ikram Junaidi, “Mobilink, Warid become Jazz after merger,” Dawn, February 7, 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1313181.
- 13. “Cellular Market Share,” chart, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, https://www.pta.gov.pk/en/telecom-indicators/7.
|Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner?||04|
The PTA is the regulatory body for the internet and mobile industry, and internet freedom advocates and human rights groups have expressed concerns about its lack of transparency and independence.1 The prime minister appoints the chair and members of the three-person authority, which reports to the MoITT.2
The PTA plays an active role in implementing the various policies that undermine internet freedom. In March 2015, the PTA formally took responsibility for internet content management (see B3), this power was also consolidated in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA). However, there has been a lack of transparency and oversight of the PTA in terms of its decisions under section 37 of the PECA (see B3).
- 1. “Pakistan: Telecommunications (Re-organization) Act – Legal Analysis,” Article 19, January 2012, https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/2949/12-02-02-pakista….
- 2. The Gazette of Pakistan, Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996, Act No. XVII of 1996, Islamabad: October 17, 1996, https://www.pta.gov.pk/media/telecom_act_170510.pdf.
B Limits on Content
Social media platforms, communication tools, and other online tools are popular and contribute to a vibrant online space. However, online content is restricted by the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which authorizes the PTA to undertake content management. Blocking of political content without transparency continued during the reporting period, including of websites relating to the general election. Disinformation and manipulated content continued to proliferate online, also ramping up around the vote.
|Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content?||16|
Authorities frequently blocks political, religious, and social content critical of Islam or the military, sites that host pornography or nudity, and sites related to or offering circumvention and privacy tools, among others.1 PTA figures reported in late 2018 show that at least 831,000 sites are blocked, including some 770,000 for pornographic content, 34,700 for blasphemy, at least 11,500 for antistate, antijudiciary, or sectarian or hateful content, and more than 800 for defamation and/or impersonation.2
In June 2018, in the lead-up to the following month’s general elections, the website of the leftist Awami Workers Party (AWP) was blocked.3 It was restored after the party lodged objections with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), but the PTA provided no explanation for the block. The party has petitioned the Islamabad High Court (IHC) about the case, which remains under consideration.4
In December 2018, it was reported that Voice of America’s (VOA) websites in Urdu and Pashto were inaccessible. A VOA official said that the Pashto-language website was blocked a few months prior, while the Urdu version was inaccessible after it reported on Mohsin Dawar, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).5 Both websites were eventually unblocked. Previously, in early 2018, a media blackout of PTM was ordered at the behest of the military establishment, and that April the news website NayaDaur was blocked in Pakistan for over a week before the PTA restored it. No reason for the blocking was provided by the government, but it followed its publication of an article sympathetic to the Pashtun human rights movement.6
During the coverage period, the government did not block social media or communication platforms, despite a threat from the Islamabad High Court warning that it might order the PTA to block Twitter for failing to remove content deemed “blasphemous.”7 Previously, in November 2017, social media applications and the websites of most news channels were blocked briefly throughout the country, due to what the government claimed were security concerns.
Political dissent and secessionist movements in areas including Balochistan and Sindh province have been subject to systematic censorship for years.8 In August 2016, the government banned websites operated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party based in Sindh province, and said it would take steps to remove affiliated social media accounts after the party’s exiled leader delivered what officials and news reports characterized as an “anti-Pakistan” speech.9 The party’s official website remained blocked in mid-2019
- 1. “Pakistan,” Internet Monitor, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, https://thenetmonitor.org/research/2017-global-internet-censorship/pak.
- 2. Ramsha Jahangir, “Pakistan's online clampdown,” Dawn, last updated October 28, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1441927.
- 3. “AWP contacts ECP, telecom authority against website blockage,” Dawn, last updated June 6, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1412269.
- 4. “AWP challenges PTA in court over blocked website,” Daily Times, February 18, 2019, https://dailytimes.com.pk/355836/awp-challenges-pta-in-court-over-block….
- 5. Ikram Junaidi, “Urdu, Pashto VOA websites inaccessible in Pakistan,” Dawn, December 13, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1451133.
- 6. The website announced its restoration via Twitter. See: NayaDaur Media (@nayadaurpk), Twitter post, 28 April, 2018, 2:28 AM EST, https://twitter.com/nayadaurpk/status/990160757957505024.
- 7. Rizwan Shehzad, “IHC hints at ordering ban on Twitter,” The Express Tribune, July 21, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1763044/1-ihc-hints-ordering-ban-twitter/; Asim Yasin, “Senate body directs FIA to stop misuse of social media,” The News International, August 16, 2018, https://www.thenews.com.pk/amp/355606-senate-body-directs-fia-to-stop-m….
- 8. “PTA letter blocking websites April 25, 06,” Pakistan 451 (blog), April 27, 2006, https://pakistan451.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/pta-letter-blocking-websit….
- 9. Atif Khan, “Govt decides to block all MQM social media sites,” The Nation, August 24, 2016, http://nation.com.pk/newspaper-picks/24-Aug-2016/govt-decides-to-block-….
|Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content?||24|
State and other actors are known to exert extralegal pressure on publishers and content producers to remove content, and these instances frequently go unreported.
Pakistan is among the top countries where content is restricted on Facebook.1 Between July to December 2018, the number of content restrictions by Facebook doubled from 2,203 (January to June 2018) to 4,165 items. Facebook complied with some requests to remove content allegedly violating domestic laws against blasphemy, “anti-judiciary content, and condemnation of the country's independence.”2
During the same time period, authorities reported 2,349 profiles to Twitter and requested that the platform remove 193 pieces of content.3 Twitter reported a 0 percent compliance rate with the requests, but did remove content from 204 accounts for violating its terms of service.4
In January 2019, Twitter sent a number of journalists,5 activists, and lawyers6 notices that published content violated Pakistani law. The notices were allegedly based on “official correspondence,” seemingly from the government or security forces. However, the Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry denied that the government reported the tweets.7
The government sent 214 requests to Google to remove 3,125 pieces of content between July and December 2018, up from 196 requests from the previous six months. Of them, 78 percent of requests related to religious offenses, 5 percent to defamation, and 4 percent to hate speech.8 Google complied with 73 percent of requests. For example, Google removed images and posts that the PTA deemed offensive and blasphemous to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. In an example with which Google did not comply, the government requested the removal of a YouTube video from Al Jazeera in which Muslim-Americans drew images of their friends named Muhammad.
Social media platforms have also removed content on their own accord.9 In April 2019, Facebook removed 103 Pakistan-based pages, groups, and accounts from Facebook and Instagram for “inauthentic behaviour” and spamming (see B5).10 Previously, in August 2018, Twitter removed accounts of Baloch nationalist leaders and political parties, such as the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).11 It was speculated that the accounts were removed in anticipation of twelfth anniversary of Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti’s death.
Section 38 of PECA limits civil or criminal liability for service providers for content posted by users, unless it is proven that the service provider had “specific actual knowledge and willful intent to proactively and positively participate” in cybercrimes committed under the act.
- 1. Ramsha Jahangir, “Pakistan among top states where Facebook curbed most content,” Dawn, last updated May 25, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1484390/pakistan-among-top-states-where-faceb….
- 2. “Content Restrictions – Pakistan, Facebook Transparency Report, last updated June 2019, https://transparency.facebook.com/content-restrictions/country/PK.
- 3. Ramsha Jahangir, “Pakistan reported 3,000 accounts in six months: Twitter,” Dawn, last updated December 14, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1451339.
- 4. Ramsha Jahangir,” Number of Pakistani accounts reported to Twitter drops,” Dawn, last updated May 11, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1481574/number-of-pakistani-accounts-reported….
- 5. “Twitter informs journalist his tweet on Dawar, Abidi murders may be in 'violation of Pakistani law,'” Dawn, last updated January 3, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1455249.
- 6. Ramsha Jahangir, “Explainer: Legal notices to users: Twitter says it prefers to protect free speech,” Dawn, last updated January 25, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1459638/explainer-legal-notices-to-users-twit….
- 7. “Govt not behind complaint to Twitter regarding lawyer Reema Omer's tweet: info minister,” Dawn, January 23, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1459300/govt-not-behind-complaint-to-twitter-….
- 8. “Government requests to remove content,” Google Transparency Report, https://transparencyreport.google.com/government-removals/by-country/PK….
- 9. “Twitter warns global users their tweets violate Pakistani law,” AFP, December 11, 2018, https://news.yahoo.com/twitter-warns-global-users-tweets-violate-pakist….
- 10. “Facebook takes sweeping action against networks in Pakistan, India for 'coordinated inauthentic behavior,'” Dawn, last updated April 2, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1473232.
- 11. “Twitter suspends accounts of Baloch nationalists,” Pakistan Today, last updated August 25, 2018, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2018/08/25/twitter-suspends-accounts-o….
|Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process?||14|
The PTA, the regulatory authority for online censorship, routinely restricts content in a nontransparent and arbitrary fashion. While PECA legally mandates that the PTA issue notices when restricting content, in practice the agency rarely does. This lack of written notices impedes the ability of those impacted to appeal the orders or undertake judicial review.
PECA, passed in August 2016, gives the government broad blocking powers. Section 37 grants the PTA expansive powers to block or remove any online content that it deems unlawful, “if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offense under this Act.” Critics contend that such a wide mandate to restrict online speech violates Pakistan’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).1
Apart from PECA, other regulatory provisions have long enabled politically motivated censorship of dissenting voices and information perceived as damaging to the military or political elites. Broad provisions in the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act support censorship for the protection of national security or religious reasons.2 A Telecommunications Policy approved in 2015 utilized similar language. Section 9.8.3 enabled the PTA to “monitor and manage content including any blasphemous and pornographic material in conflict with the principles of Islamic way of life as reflected in the Objectives Resolution and Article 31 of the Constitution,” as well as material that is considered to be “detrimental to national security, or any other category stipulated in any other law.”28 Section 99 of the penal code separately allows the government to restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest.3
As a condition of their licenses, ISPs and backbone providers must restrict access to individual URLs or IP addresses upon receipt of a blocking order.4 Since 2012, successive administrations have sought to move from less sophisticated manual blocking toward technical filtering,5 despite widespread civil society protests.6 In 2013, the University of Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab reported that technology developed by the Canadian company Netsweeper, as well as DNS tampering,7 was filtering political and social content at the national level on the PTCL network.8
- 1. Adnan Chaudhri, “Pak Telecom policy 2015 – another step forward for censorship,” Digital Rights Foundation, February 10, 2016 https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/pak-telecom-policy-2015-another-step…; Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament of Pakistan), A Bill to Make Provisions for Prevention of Electronic Crimes, November 8, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20160911141243/http://digitalrightsfoundati….
- 2. “Pakistan: Telecommunications (Re-organization) Act,” Article 19.
- 3. “Pakistan: Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 as amended by Act 2 of 1997,” available at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, obtained September 2007, http://www.oecd.org/site/adboecdanti-corruptioninitiative/39849781.pdf.
- 4. PTA Act 1996, article 23.
- 5. Danny O’Brien, “Pakistan's Excessive Internet Censorship Plans,” Committee to Protect Journalists (blog), March 1, 2012, https://cpj.org/x/4995; “Request for Proposal: National URL Filtering and Blocking System,” National ICT Research and Development Fund, accessed August 2012, https://slidept.net/view-doc.html?utm_source=rfp-url-filtering-blocking…; “PTA determined to block websites with ‘objectionable’ content,” The Express Tribune, March 9, 2012, https://web.archive.org/web/20120310130957/http://tribune.com.pk/story/…; Anwer Abbas, “PTA, IT Ministry at Odds over Internet Censorship System,” Pakistan Today, January 3, 2013, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2013/01/03/pta-it-ministry-at-odds-ove…; Apurva Chaudhary, “Pakistan To Unblock YouTube After Building Filtering Mechanism,” Medianama, January 10, 2013, https://www.medianama.com/2013/01/223-pakistan-to-unblock-youtube-after…; “The Saga of YouTube Ban,” Pakistan Press Foundation, January 2, 2013, https://www.pakistanpressfoundation.org/the-saga-of-youtube-ban/; “Ministry Wants Treaty, Law to Block Blasphemous Content,” The News International, March 28, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20141028115314/http://www.thenews.com.pk/To…; Associated Press of Pakistan, “IT Minister plans to ban 'objectionable content' across entire internet,” The Express Tribune, August 5, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20130807081544/http://tribune.com.pk/story/….
- 6. Shahbaz Rana, “IT Ministry Shelves Plan to Install Massive URL Blocking System,” The Express Tribune, March 19, 2012, https://web.archive.org/web/20120321030655/http://tribune.com.pk/story/….
- 7. DNS tampering intercepts the user’s request to visit a functioning website and returns an error message.
- 8. Senft et al., O Pakistan, We Stand on Guard for Thee.
|Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?||14|
Most online commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, civil-military relations, separatist movements, and women’s and other minority communities’ rights.1 A 2017 Digital Rights Foundation report found that women journalists in particular self-censored speech on these issues.2 In a 2018 survey of Pakistani journalists, 46 percent of those surveyed reported self-censoring due to fears for their safety; 18 percent of respondents reported restricting their reporting to noncontroversial subjects.3 Self-censorship is also exacerbated by government surveillance and legal repercussions for online speech.
- 1. “Surveillance of Female Journalists in Pakistan,” Digital Rights Foundation, February 02, 2017, http://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Surveillan….
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Maham Javaid, “Digital (In)security of Journalists in Pakistan,” Digital Rights Foundation, 2018, https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Report-Di….
|Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest?||24|
Increasingly, coordinated and inauthentic accounts are manipulating online content and spreading disinformation. Online journalists and activists, especially those scrutinizing the military or intelligence agencies, have also testified to the existence of state-sponsored “troll armies” being employed to silence dissent.1 For example, in July 2019, following the coverage period, #ArrestAntiPakJournalists trended across Twitter, accompanying tweets containing manipulated information about prominent journalists critical of the ruling party. Many accounts and tweets participating with the hashtag exhibited signs of being automated.2
Bots supporting certain political parties also surfaced online ahead of the July 2018 general elections.3 According to a May 2018 report, 52 percent of accounts tweeting #PMLN—associated with the popular incumbent Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz—were bots, while another 46 percent of accounts using #PTI— Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf—another political party, were as well.4
In April 2019, during the coverage period, Facebook said it had discovered inauthentic behavior on its platform that ”was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military.” It removed a number of pages, groups, and accounts that had posted content on or operated pro-military pages, pages related to Kashmir, and more general informational and community pages.5
A report from the Oxford Internet Institute released in September 2019, after the coverage period, identified Pakistan as having coordinated cyber troop teams with full-time staff members employed to manipulate the information space.8 The report identifies that such teams work to support preferred messaging of their clients, attack the opposition, and suppress critical content. Pakistan is alleged to have fake accounts run by both bots and human accounts, and most often manipulates content on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Some individuals have been the targets of apparently coordinated campaigns seeking to discredit them with accusations of blasphemy—a criminal offense which carries a death penalty (see C2). In one example from the previous reporting period, social media users “poisoned” hashtags being used to rally support for missing bloggers, accusing them of blasphemy (see B8).
- 1. Ramsha Jahangir, “The mechanics of silencing dissent,” Dawn, May 19, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1482851.
- 2. “DRM Investigates: Twitter Accounts Behind the Hashtag #ArrestAntiPakJournalists,” Digital Rights Monitor, July 5, 2019, http://digitalrightsmonitor.pk/drm-investigates-twitter-accounts-behind…
- 3. Ramsha Jahangir, “Situationer: Pakistan's social media conundrum as election looms,” Dawn, last updated March 17, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1395835.
- 4. Hassan Nasir Mirbahar and Raymond Serrato, “Social media and elections,” The News on Sunday, May 20, 2018, http://tns.thenews.com.pk/social-media-elections/.
- 5. “Removing Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior and Spam from India and Pakistan,” Facebook Newsroom, April 1, 2019, https://about.fb.com/news/2019/04/cib-and-spam-from-india-pakistan/.
- 6. “Govt launches 'Fake News Buster' account to expose false reports,” Dawn, October 1, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1436167.
- 7. FakeNewsBusterMoIB (@FakeNews_Buster), Twitter account, https://twitter.com/FakeNews_Buster.
- 8. Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard, “The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation,” working paper (Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda, 2019), https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/news/releases/use-of-social-media-to-manipulat….
|Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online?||23|
While some digital media outlets struggle to stay financially viable, the online landscape is generally free of major economic or regulatory constraints intended to prevent users from publishing independent political news and opinions.
However, the government has proposed a number of changes to the regulatory system that would give it greater control over digital media and the ability to publish content. For example, legislation proposed in October 2018 would establish the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA)—merging the PTA, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, and the Press Council of Pakistan.1 The PMRA would thus have regulatory control over all electronic, digital, and printed media.2 The proposed legislation would also institute a licensing regime that would restrict online news reporting. According to a concept note circulated by the government, the federal government would have powers to issue directives and the decision of the government will be deemed “final”, ruling out the possibility of judicial review.3 The bill for the PMRA was approved by the federal cabinet in January; there were no further developments on the proposed legislation.4
Separately, the government announced in July, after the coverage period, that it would create media courts that would address media-related disputes.5
- 1. Kalbe Ali, “Govt plans new body to regulate media: Fawad,” Dawn, October 19, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1439946.
- 2. Steven Butler, “Proposed media regulator provokes strong criticism in Pakistan,” Committee to Protect Journalists (blog), April 8, 2019, https://cpj.org/blog/2019/04/proposed-media-regulator-pakistan-strong-c….
- 3. Waseem Abbasi, “While regulating media...: Govt decision will be final,” The News International, January 15, 2019, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/419168-while-regulating-media-govt-dec….
- 4. Syed Irfan Raza, “Cabinet approves merger of all media regulatory bodies,” Dawn, January 25, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1459636.
- 5. Amir Wasim, “Govt’s plan to set up media courts opposed,” Dawn, last updated July 26, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1496209; “Pakistan Planning to Set Up Courts to Address Issues of Media Industry, Says Official,” News18, last updated July 25, 2019, https://www.news18.com/news/world/pakistan-planning-to-set-up-courts-to…
|Does the online information landscape lack diversity?||24|
Despite content restrictions, most Pakistanis have access to international news organizations and other independent media, as well as a range of websites representing political parties, local civil society groups, and international human rights organizations.1
Content online is dominated by users with the greatest access—generally those in urban areas with the means to afford service. While there are several outlets producing content in regional languages, there is a still a disproportionate amount of Urdu and English language content. Further, social taboos and the criminalization of same-sex relationships means that local content addressing the interests of LGBT+ people is limited.
- 1. OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile—Pakistan,” 2012.
|Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues?||36|
Social networking, blogging, and voice-over-IP (VoIP) applications are available and widely used. However, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan said in March 2017 that “crowd funding is not allowed in Pakistan,” narrowing one potential avenue for digital activism.1 The decision was issued in response to activity by a single fraudulent website, but stated that “no company can raise funds” through crowd funding. Further, internet and mobile connectivity are often restricted to limit mobilization and protests (see A3).
The internet has nevertheless provided a space for issues censored on mainstream media. For example, despite facing a complete blackout on print and electronic media, as well as arrests of activists, the PTM has been able to mobilize its rallies across the country.2 However, engaging in controversial or prohibited activism online has grown increasingly dangerous. Criminal reports filed against activists for their online activity has limited the PTM’s reach.3
Online conversations around police brutality and unlawful detentions became more prevalent in Pakistan during the coverage period. There was considerable outrage online about the detentions of academic Ammar Ali Jan,4 and activist Gulalai Ismail, who were each arrested at separate PTM demonstrations in February.5 The visibility lent to their detentions online led in part to their speedy releases.
Feminists and women’s rights activists have also used the global #MeToo movement to expose the sexual misconduct of powerful men in Pakistan. However, online accusations have also opened some women up to defamation lawsuits and online attacks (see C7).6
- 1. “SECP warns public about crowd funding,” Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, Press Release, Islamabad: March 27, 2017, https://www.secp.gov.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Press-Release-March-….
- 2. M Ilyas Khan, “Manzoor Pashteen: The young tribesman rattling Pakistan's army,” BBC News, 23 April 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-43827660.
- 3. “Amnesty calls for immediate release of Hayat Preghal,” Pakistan Today, last updated September 25, 2018, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2018/09/24/ai-calls-for-immediate-rele….
- 4. “Academic Ammar Ali Jan released on bail after being arrested over PTM protest,” Pakistan Today, last updated February 9, 2019, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2019/02/09/academic-ammar-ali-jan-rele….
- 5. “Activist Gulalai Ismail thanks PM Khan for 'ensuring her release' after 30-hour detention,” Dawn, February 7, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1462376.
- 6. Rana Bilal, “Meesha Shafi’s lawyers respond to Ali Zafar’s legal notice, ask him to issue an apology,” Dawn Images, last updated May 12, 2018, https://images.dawn.com/news/1180056/meesha-shafis-lawyers-respond-to-a…; “Aurat March organisers receive online death threats,” Dawn, last updated March 17, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1470144.
C Violations of User Rights
PECA and other laws restrict users’ rights, which were frequently violated during the coverage period. Two users were given the death penalty on charges of posting blasphemous content, although their convictions are under appeal. Government surveillance and social media monitoring were of key concern during the coverage period, as was the continued lack of a data protection law. Users continue to face intimidation, blackmail, and at times violence, in response to online activity.
|Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence?||26|
Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution establishes freedom of speech and freedom of the press as fundamental rights, although they are subject to several broad restrictions, including for “the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.”1 Pakistani courts have not clearly interpreted terms such as “national interest,” “decency,” and “morality,” and parameters of the Article are largely seen as inapplicable to the most powerful institutions in the country.
In a positive development during the coverage period, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutional right to free expression and press freedom in its ruling on the 2017 Faizabad sit-in. Justice Qazi Faez Isa stated in the February 2019 ruling that the government could not restrict the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, expression, and press beyond the limitations defined in Article 19.2 Although the judgment did not mention these rights in cases of online expression specifically, the sit-in had prompted the blocking of major social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.3
Pakistan became a signatory to the ICCPR, which protects freedom of expression, among other fundamental rights, in 2010, but does not consistently uphold it in practice.4 The applicability of international law in local courts is a contentious issue. Pakistan is a dualist country, making international treaties only legally binding once they are specifically incorporated into local law.
- 1. The Constitution of Pakistan, last accessed December 2019, http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/constitution/part2.ch1.html.
- 2. “10 major takeaways from SC's Faizabad sit-in judgement,” Dawn, February 8, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1462177. The full judgment can be accessed here: Suo Moto Case No.7/2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20190214124520/http://www.supremecourt.gov…
- 3. “Facebook, Twitter, YouTube to remain blocked until law and order situation improves: PTA,” The Express Tribune, November 25, 2017, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1568051/1-twitter-reacts-faizabad-crackdow….
- 4. “President signs convention on civil, political rights,” Daily Times, June 4, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20130914085829/http://www.dailytimes.com.pk….
|Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities?||04|
Several laws restrict the rights of internet users. In August 2016, PECA became law, despite concerns from civil society organizations regarding the lack of transparency involved in the drafting process. Though it contains some procedural safeguards for cybercrime investigations by law enforcement agencies, international and local human rights groups have condemned the law’s overly broad language and disproportionate penalties, including a 14-year prison term for acts of cyberterrorism that the law failed to adequately define.1
The law also punishes preparing or disseminating electronic communication to glorify terrorism; and preparing or disseminating information that is likely to advance religious, ethnic or sectarian hatred; both crimes are punishable with up to seven years in prison. Section 20 criminalizes displaying or transmitting information that intimidates or harms the “reputation or privacy of a natural person” with a maximum three-year prison term or a fine of 1 million rupees ($9,500), or both.2 The law also grants the PTA broad censorship powers (see B3) and other agencies the ability to conduct wide-ranging surveillance (see C5).
The law’s harsh penalties were cause for particular concern in light of recent sentences passed by antiterrorism courts for online speech. Furthermore, secret military courts were established in 2015 through the 21st amendment to the constitution.3 The courts’ jurisdiction lapsed in March 2019 after extensions in 2017; however the government is working to grant another two-year extension.4
IHC has issued directions to add offences of pornography and blasphemy to PECA.5 A draft amendment presented to the court in February 2018 included provisions to punish false accusations of blasphemy as well.6 In January 2018 the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) requested that parliament make more offenses cognizable and nonbailable. These included “access, modification, interference, deletion to critical infrastructure, information system or data (sections 6, 7, and 8), electronic forgery (section 13), electronic fraud (section 14), unauthorized issuance of SIM cards (section 17), tampering of electronic equipment (section 18), cyberstalking (section 24), and spoofing (section 26).”7 The amendment bill proposed in October 2018 was met with opposition in the assembly, and the bill has been returned to the Senate.8
Sections of the penal code that cover blasphemy—including 295(c), which imposes a mandatory death sentence—are frequently invoked to limit freedom of expression (see C3). In March 2017, the IHC ruled that those accused of posting blasphemous content on social media should be barred from leaving the country until their name is cleared.9 Any citizen can file a blasphemy complaint against any other, leaving the accused vulnerable to violent reprisals regardless of whether the complaint has foundation. Human rights groups report that the law lacks safeguards to prevent abuse to settle personal vendettas.10
Other laws threaten online speech. Sections 36 and 37 of the Electronic Transaction Ordinance of 2002 punish “violations of privacy of information” and “damage to information systems,” respectively. The 2002 Defamation Ordinance can impose prison sentences of up to five years. PECA effectively replaced the ordinances, but they were still invoked during the reporting period, and some older cases were also ongoing. Section 124 of the penal code on sedition is broadly worded, and covers acts of sedition “by words” or “visible representation,” which could include digital speech, though it has not yet been applied to an online context.11 The Surveying and Mapping Act 2014 limits digital mapping activity to organizations registered with Survey of Pakistan, a government authority, with federal permission required for collaborating with foreign companies.12
- 1. “The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 - An Analysis,” Digital Rights Foundation, Privacy International, and Article 19, June 2016, https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/38416/PECB-Analysis-J….
- 2. Parliament, A Bill to Make Provisions for Prevention of Electronic Crimes.
- 3. “Military courts given legal cover by Senate,” Dawn, last updated March 20, 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1323356.
- 4. Fayyaz Raja, “Summary for 2nd extension in military courts sent to cabinet, NA committee told,” Dawn, last updated January 2, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1455059.
- 5. Malik Asad, “No evidence against bloggers accused of blasphemy: FIA,” Dawn, December 23 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1378327.
- 6. Mohammad Imran, “Govt to change law and severely punish accusers who falsely allege blasphemy, IHC told,” Dawn, February 16, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1389774.
- 7. Talal Raza, “FIA submits ‘half-yearly’ report on electronic crimes after a one year delay; asks for 7 offences to be declared ‘non-bailable’ and a ban on ‘Bitcoin,’” Digital Rights Monitor, January 16, 2018, http://digitalrightsmonitor.pk/fia-submits-half-yearly-report-on-electr….
- 8. “PECA (AMENDMENT) BILL 2018: UPDATE”, Digital Rights Foundation (blog), November 5, 2018, https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/peca-amendment-bill-2018-update/.
- 9. Aamir Jami, “IHC orders blasphemers' names be put on ECL,” Dawn, last updated March 9, 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1319184.
- 10. “Pakistan: How the Blasphemy Laws Enable Abuse,” Amnesty International, December 21, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/12/pakistan-how-the-blasphe…
- 11. Pakistan Penal Code, Act XLV of 1860, last accessed August 2019, http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/legislation/1860/actXLVof1860.html.
- 12. Nighat Dad, “Pakistan Considering Bill that Would Ban Independent Mapping Projects,” Tech President, November 28, 2012, http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/23188/pakistan-considering-bill-wou…; Pakistan National Assembly, A Bill to Provide for Constitution and Regulation of Survey of Pakistan, No. 225/25/2012, November 14, 2012, http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/23188/pakistan-considering-bill-wou….
|Are individuals penalized for online activities?||16|
People are frequently prosecuted for their online activities, often receiving harsh sentences. The death penalty was imposed in two cases of online blasphemy during this report’s coverage period, although the cases are under appeal.
There have been a number of blasphemy cases against users for allegedly criticizing Islam online.1 In December 2018, two Christian brothers were sentenced to death for blasphemy for allegedly sharing “disrespectful material” about the prophet Mohammad on their website in 2011.2 The brothers were originally arrested in 2015. The convictions are being appealed to the Lahore High Court. In addition, death penalty convictions from the previous coverage period are still on appeal. In June 2017, a man was sentenced to death for blasphemy after posting comments about the prophet Mohammed on Facebook.3 In September 2017, a Christian man was sentenced to death for blasphemy after sending a poem on WhatsApp to a Muslim friend that was critical of Islam.4
In another blasphemy case, Patras Masih was arrested in February 2018 for allegedly posting blasphemous content on social media. The arrest came amidst pressure from Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and other religious parties.5 The FIA detained the accused and his cousin, Sajid Masih, and reportedly tortured them (see C7).
Political speech, such as criticism of the government, judiciary, or the armed forces, was subject to legal action during the coverage period.6 In July 2018, PTM social media activist Hayat Preghal was charged with violating sections 9 and 10 of PECA (for glorification of an offence and cyberterrorism, respectively) and sections 500 and 109 of the Penal Code based on his online comments.7 He was granted bail three months later, but the charges remain on the books.8
In April 2019, journalist Shahzeb Ali Shah Jillani was charged under sections 500 (punishment for defamation), 109 (abatement), and 34 (common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code read with the Sections 10(a) (cyberterrorism), 11 (hate speech) and 20 (offences against dignity of a natural person) of PECA, for allegedly making defamatory remarks against state institutions.9 However, in May, 2019 the police’s first information report that had been filed against the journalist was cancelled as nonmaintainable.10
- 1. Alizeh Kohari, “What It’s Like to be Thrown in Jail for Posting on Facebook,” WIRED, March 20, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/what-its-like-to-be-thrown-in-jail-for-post…; Rizwan Shehzad, “ATC indicts four for blasphemy on social media,” The Express Tribune, September 13, 2017, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1504831/atc-indicts-four-blasphemy-social-….
- 2. “Brothers awarded death sentence for blasphemy in Jhelum, says UK group,” Samaa Digital, December 15, 2018, https://www.samaa.tv/news/2018/12/brothers-awarded-death-sentence-for-b…; Ben Farmer and Waqar Gillani, “Two Christian brothers sentenced to death for web blasphemy in Pakistan,” The Telegraph, December, 18, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/18/two-christian-brothers-sent….
- 3. “'Facebook blasphemer' given death penalty,” BBC News, June 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-40246754; Qasim Nauman, “Man to Appeal Death Sentence in Pakistan for Blasphemy on Facebook,” The Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/man-to-appeal-death-sentence-in-pakistan-f….
- 4. “Christian sentenced to death over 'blasphemous' WhatsApp text,” AFP, via The Express Tribune, September 15, 2017, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1507124/christian-sentenced-to-death-over-…; “Pakistan man sentenced to death for ridiculing Prophet Muhammad on WhatsApp,” Reuters, via The Guardian, September 15, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/16/pakistan-man-sentenced-to….
- 5. “Man booked for ‘blasphemy,’” Dawn, February 20, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1390471/man-booked-for-blasphemy.
- 6. “FIR Filed Against Vehari Resident For Satirical Posts About Imran Khan, Ex-CJP, General Bajwa”, Naya Daur, February 16, 2019, https://nayadaur.tv/2019/02/fir-filed-against-vehari-resident-for-satir…; Shakeel Ahmed, “Four arrested for uploading ‘hate speech’ against PM on social media,” Dawn, February 15, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1463920; Munawer Azeem, “FIA to probe social media campaign against IHC judges,” Dawn, last updated September 27, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1435227; “Faisal Raza Abidi released on bail,” Dawn, last updated December 23, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1453042; Faisal Raza Abidi acquitted in 'insulting, threatening' former CJP Nisar case,” The Express Tribune, May 2, 2019, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1964291/1-faisal-raza-abidi-acquitted-insu…; Muhammad Imran, “ATC sends owner, producer of web channel on judicial remand to Adiala jail for airing anti-judiciary remarks,” Dawn, October 18, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/amp/1439821.
- 7. “Pakistan: Immediately and Unconditionally Release Muhammad Hayat Khan Preghal,” Amnesty International Public Statement, ASA 33/9151/2019, September 24, 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ASA3391512018ENGLISH.pdf.
- 8. Malik Asad, “PTM activist granted bail,” Dawn, September 27, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1435226.
- 9. Naeem Sahoutara, “Journalist Shahzeb Jillani's bail extended for a week as investigating officer remains no-show,” Dawn, last updated April 17, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1476700.
- 10. “Karachi court disposes of case against journalist Shahzeb Jillani,” Samaa Digital, May 18, 2019, https://www.samaa.tv/news/2019/05/karachi-court-disposes-of-case-agains….
|Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption?||14|
Requirements that users link their internet and mobile connections to their national identity card limit anonymous use of the internet.1 Increasingly stringent security measures mean that users must register fingerprints along with other identifying information when applying for broadband internet packages and mobile service.2 This has worrying implications for human rights activists and others who rely on anonymous internet access, and may discourage some from seeking home service. Mobile phones must be linked to national identification card number, and unregistered phones have been subject to disconnection.3
The government has previously moved to restrict encrypted communication. In 2011, the PTA mandated that ISPs inform them about customers using encrypted tools, including virtual private networks (VPNs).4 However, the mandate was never properly implemented.
- 1. “Pakistan takes aim at Sim cards in anti-terror drive,” BBC News, 24 March, 2015, https://bbc.in/2wIDp1E.
- 2. “SIM to be issued after biometric verification,” Dawn, July 29, 2014, https://www.dawn.com/news/1122290.
- 3. Ashraf Khan and Zaheer Ali Khan, “PTA begins blocking unregistered mobile phones across the country,” Samaa, January 16, 2019, https://www.samaa.tv/news/2019/01/pta-begins-blocking-unregistered-mobi….
- 4. Josh Halliday and Saeed Shah, “Pakistan to ban encryption software,” The Guardian, August 30, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/30/pakistan-bans-encryption-….
|Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy?||16|
Government surveillance is a serious concern for activists, bloggers, and media representatives, as well as ordinary internet users. PECA grants broad surveillance powers both to agencies within Pakistan and potentially to foreign governments, since it includes provisions that permit the sharing of data with international agencies without adequate oversight.1
In a troubling development during the coverage period, the FIA announced in February 2019 that it would implement a social media monitoring system to target extremism, hate speech, and antinational content online. The system would allow authorities to take action against users under PECA.2 More details have yet to be publicized.
Concerns around social media monitoring spiked in March 2019, after the Interior Ministry ordered an investigation into what it defined as a “targeted social media campaign” against Saudi Arabia while Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was visiting Pakistan.3 The ministry’s letter identified journalists and activists who allegedly shared messages “very disrespectful” to the crown prince by including images of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi on their social media profiles.
Pakistani law enforcement and intelligence agencies appear to have expanded their monitoring activities, including at the local level, ostensibly to curb terrorism and violent crime.4 In 2015, the UK-based NGO Privacy International reported that the Pakistani government’s surveillance capabilities, particularly those of the ISI, outstrip domestic and international legal regulation.5 “Mass network surveillance has been in place in Pakistan since at least 2005,” using technology obtained “from both domestic and foreign surveillance companies, including Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8 and Utimaco,” according to the report.
A separate 2013 report by Citizen Lab indicated that Pakistani citizens may be vulnerable to FinFisher spyware, which collects data such as Skype audio, key logs, and screenshots.6 The analysis found FinFisher’s command and control servers in 36 countries worldwide, including on the PTCL network in Pakistan, but did not confirm that actors in Pakistan are knowingly taking advantage of its capabilities. In 2014, however, hackers released internal FinFisher documents indicating that a client identified as “Customer 32” licensed software from FinFisher to infect Microsoft Office documents with malware to steal files from target computers in Pakistan.7
The Fair Trial Act, passed in 2013,8 allows security agencies to seek a judicial warrant to monitor private communications “to neutralize and prevent
A Obstacles to Accessthreat or any attempt to carry out scheduled offences.” It covers information sent from or received in Pakistan, or between Pakistani citizens, whether they are resident in the country or not. Warrants can be issued if a law enforcement official has “reason to believe” there is a risk of terrorism; warrants can also be temporarily waived by intelligence agencies. A 2014 white paper issued by the Digital Rights Group said that provisions of the Fair Trial Act contravene the constitution and international treaties that Pakistan has signed.9
While there is no data protection law in Pakistan, the Ministry for Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT) issued a draft Personal Data Protection Bill during the coverage period.10 While the bill is a welcome development, it has been criticized for lacking robust safeguards for government-held data.11
Data collected by the state’s National Database Registration Authority (NADRA), which maintains a centralized repository of information about citizens, is not subject to any privacy rules.12 Data from NADRA and telecom companies, as well as police records, are reportedly sold online, including on Facebook.13 Given the centralized and interconnected nature of Pakistan’s national database, data is vulnerable when it moves from one department to another.14
Pakistanis are also vulnerable to surveillance from overseas intelligence agencies. In June 2015, the online outlet the Intercept published revelations of hacking and infiltration of the PIE by the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency prior to 2008. According to the Intercept, this gave GCHQ “access to almost any user of the internet inside Pakistan” and the ability to “re-route selected traffic across international links towards GCHQ's passive collection systems.”15
International cooperation on surveillance has also increased since the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Technology such as surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology has been shared as part of various safe cities initiatives.16 While these initiatives are framed by the government as measures to protect public safety, the increase in surveillance infrastructure without meaningful safeguards concerns human rights activists.
- 1. Data includes the “communication’s origin, destination, route, time, data, size, duration or type of underlying service.” See, Nighat Dad and Adnan Chaudhri, “The Sorry Tale of the PECB, Pakistan's Terrible Electronic Crimes Bill,” Digital Rights Foundation (blog), November 26, 2015, https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/the-sorry-tale-of-the-pecb-pakistans….
- 2. Imran Ayub, “FIA watching social media to curb ‘anti-national propaganda, hate speech,’” Dawn, last updated February 25, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1465816/fia-watching-social-media-to-curb-ant….
- 3. Kalbe Ali, “Probe into social media criticism on VVIP visit revived,” Dawn, March 29, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1472503.
- 4. Masroor Afzal Pasha, “Sindh Police to Get Mobile Tracking Technology,” Daily Times, October 29, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20130914085852/http://www.dailytimes.com.pk…; “Punjab Police Lack Facility of ‘Phone Locator’, PA Told,” The News, January 12, 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20180722112818/https://www.thenews.com.pk/a….
- 5. Matthew Rice, “Tipping the Scales: Security and Surveillance in Pakistan,” Privacy International, July 21, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150906144431/https://www.privacyinternati….
- 6. Morgan Marquis-Boire et al., For Their Eyes Only: The Commercialization of Digital Spying, Citizen Lab, May 1, 2013, https://citizenlab.org/storage/finfisher/final/fortheireyesonly.pdf.
- 7. Sohail Abid, “Massive Leak Opens New Investigation of FinFisher Surveillance Tools in Pakistan,” Digital Rights Foundation, via Global Voices Advocacy, August 22, 2014, https://advox.globalvoices.org/2014/08/22/massive-leak-opens-new-invest….
- 8. An Act to provide for investigation for collection of evidence by means of modern techniques and devices to prevent and effectively deal with scheduled offences and to regulate the powers of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies and for matters connected therewith or ancillary thereto, No. F. 9(21)/2012-Legis., The Gazette of Pakistan (Islamabad: February 22, 2013), http://www.senate.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1361946120_543.pdf.
- 9. “Privacy rights: Whitepaper on surveillance in Pakistan presented,” The Express Tribune, November 16, 2014, https://web.archive.org/web/20141118172500/http://tribune.com.pk/story/…; Waqqas Mir et al., “Digital Surveillance Laws in Pakistan: A White Paper,” eds. Carly Nyst and Nighat Dad (Digital Rights Foundation, 2014), https://web.archive.org/web/20160812140120/http://jasoosibandkaro.pk/wp….
- 10. Link to draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2018: https://web.archive.org/web/20190531192635/https://moitt.gov.pk/userfil….
- 11. “Comments on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018: Civil Society Submission to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications,” a joint submission by Digital Rights Foundation and Privacy International, Digital Rights Foundation, 2018, https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/DP-Commen….
- 12. Shaheera Jalil Albasit, “Is Nadra keeping your biometric data safe?,” Dawn, last updated October 17, 2016, https://www.dawn.com/news/1290534.
- 13. Asra Rizwan, “NADRA, Police and Telcos data being sold publicly on Facebook,” TechJuice, May 7, 2018, https://www.techjuice.pk/nadra-police-telcos-citizens-data-being-sold-p….
- 14. Marvi Sirmed, “Is PITB clueless about Pakistan’s largest data breach?,” Daily Times, May 11, 2018, https://dailytimes.com.pk/238533/is-pitb-clueless-about-pakistans-large….
- 15. Andrew Fishman and Glenn Greenwald, “Spies Hacked Computers Thanks To Sweeping Secret Warrants, Aggressively Stretching UK Law,” The Intercept, June 22, 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/06/22/gchq-reverse-engineering-warrants/.
- 16. Jahanzaib Haque and Qurat ul ain Siddiqui, “Exclusive: The CPEC plan for Pakistan’s digital future,” Dawn, last updated March 22, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1361176/exclusive-the-cpec-plan-for-pakistans….
|Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users?||16|
Companies are required to aid the government in monitoring users. There is currently no data protection law in Pakistan, despite assurances from the government that it intends to pass one.1 As a result of this lack of oversight, ISPs, mobile companies, and private enterprises are not obliged to maintain or comply with any data protection policies that are in place.2
Under the Fair Trial Act, service providers face a one-year jail term or a fine of up to 10 million rupees ($103,000) for failing to cooperate with warrants (see C5). Section 32 of PECA requires service providers to retain traffic data for a minimum of one year, and allows for that period to be extended with a warrant issued by a court. Furthermore, regulations introduced in March 2018 require all Wi-Fi hotspot service providers to retain user data, including users’ names, national identity or passport number, mobile phone number, time of login and logoff, IP address, MAC address, and internet access log.3
ISPs, telecommunications companies, and SIM card vendors are required to authenticate the Computerized National Identity Card details of prospective customers with NADRA before providing service.4 A reregistration drive was launched following a 2014 terrorist attack on a school that was reportedly facilitated by mobile phones with unregistered SIM cards,5 and the government added a biometric thumb impression to the registration requirements for SIM cards.6 In 2015, those who failed to meet the new requirement were warned of automatic disconnection, and 26 million SIM cards were subsequently blocked.7
- 1. Maheen Kanwal, “IT Ministry to introduce Data Protection Act in Pakistan within three months,” TechJuice, April 6, 2017, https://www.techjuice.pk/tech-ministry-data-protection-act/.
- 2. Adnan Ahmad Chaudhri et al., “Telecoms Privacy & Data Protection Policies in Pakistan,” Digital Rights Foundation, 2016, http://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Telecoms-P….
- 3. Abdul Rahman, “PTA to Record User Data from All Public Wi-Fi Hotspots,” ProPakistani, 2018, https://propakistani.pk/2018/03/16/pta-to-record-data-from-all-public-w….
- 4. JakoStripen, “SIM Activation New Procedure,” Paktelecom, January 15, 2019, https://www.paktelecom.net/pakistan-telecom-news/pta-pakistan-telecom-n….
- 5. Akhtar Amin, "PTA fails to block unregistered SIMs despite court orders," The News International, December 26, 2014, https://web.archive.org/web/20141227061832/https://www.thenews.com.pk/T….
- 6. Ahmad Fuad, "Biometric SIM verification: a threat or opportunity for cellular firms?," The Express Tribune, February 1, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150205011840/http://tribune.com.pk/story/….
- 7. Aamir Attaa, “Biometric Verification of SIMs is not Fool Proof: Chairman PTA,” ProPakistani, March 16, 2015, https://propakistani.pk/2015/03/16/biometric-verification-of-sims-is-no…; “26 million SIMs Blocked as SIM Reverification Drive Ends,” ProPakistani, April 13, 2015, https://propakistani.pk/2015/04/13/sim-reverification-drive/.
|Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities?||15|
Users continue to face intimidation, blackmail, and at times violence, in response to online activism, reporting, and debate, as well as apolitical activity online such as socializing. Users arrested in connection to their online activity are at risk of torture and sexual abuse in Pakistani detention facilities. In past years, online activists have been abducted and held for lengthy periods.
Free expression activists and bloggers have reported receiving death threats online, and Pakistan is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for traditional journalists.1 In June 2018, Daily Times journalist and activist Marvi Sirmed’s house was ransacked and her electronic devices and travel documents were taken.2 Two days earlier, social media activist and Waqt TV journalist Gul Bukhari was abducted by unknown persons, and returned a few hours later.3
In June 2019, after the coverage period ended, blogger and social media activist Muhammad Bilal Khan was killed in a knife attack; he had been active presence on social media, where he promoted causes like interfaith harmony, and called for investigations of enforced disappearances conducted by the military and intelligence agencies.4 Prior to this, in January 2017, five bloggers critical of the establishment, military, or religious militancy, separately went missing from different parts of the country.5 Four of them were recovered around the end of January 2017,6 and the fifth returned home in March 2018.7 The government denied any involvement in the abductions, but one of the recovered activists told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in March 2017 that he had been held by a “’government institution’ with links to the military,” and was tortured while he was missing.8
Women are frequently harassed and blackmailed online. Organizers and participants of the 2019 Aurat March, which celebrated International Women’s Day, were subjected to intense online attacks, including death and rape threats.9 In December 2018, an 18-year-old girl in Muzaffarabad died by suicide after a man threatened to upload pictures and videos of her online if she did not meet him.10 In May 2019 it was reported that a girl in Badin died by suicide after being blackmailed over edited pictures.11
Offline sexual violence is often recorded on camera and circulated on social media to both retraumatize and blackmail the survivor. In November 2018, eleven men kidnapped and gang-raped a transgender person in Peshawar. A video of the assault was shared on WhatsApp.12 Another woman was gang-raped and filmed in early 2019.13
Women’s use of digital tools is heavily controlled by families (see A2), and some have been murdered for digital activities in so-called honor killings. In July 2018, a woman in Taxila was killed by her husband for exchanging text messages.14
In one of Pakistan’s most high-profile cases, Qandeel Baloch, a social media celebrity known for openly expressing her sexuality, was killed by her brother in 2016.15 Baloch had sought police protection following threats she received after her real identity was published online.16 Her brother acknowledged killing her because “she was doing videos on Facebook and dishonoring the family name.” The brother and three other family members were arrested. The trial is ongoing.17
Separately, in February 2018, Patras Masih and his cousin Sajid Masih were allegedly tortured and ordered to sexually assault each other while in detention for Patras’ social media posts (see C3). To avoid having to carry out the order, Sajid jumped from the fourth floor of the FIA building and was critically injured.18
- 1. “61 Journalists Killed in Pakistan between 1992 and 2019/Motive Confirmed,” Committee to Protect Journalists, last updated 2018, https://cpj.org/data/killed/asia/pakistan/?status=Killed&motiveConfirme….
- 2. “Journalist Marvi Sirmed's home ransacked; electronic devices, travel documents stolen,” Dawn, last updated June 22, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1415427.
- 3. Imran Gabol, “Journalist Gul Bukhari home after hours-long ‘abduction' in Lahore,” Dawn, last updated June 6, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1412220/journalist-gul-bukhari-home-after-hou….
- 4. “Pakistani Blogger, Social-Media Activist Killed in Islamabad Knife Attack,” RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, June 17, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistani-blogger-social-media-activist-killed-….
- 5. “Pakistan: Bloggers Feared Abducted,” Human Rights Watch, last updated January 11, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/01/10/pakistan-bloggers-feared-abducted.
- 6. Hassan Raza Hashmi, “Three missing bloggers ‘in contact with families,’” Daily Times, http://dailytimes.com.pk/islamabad/29-Jan-17/three-missing-bloggers-in-….
- 7. “Pakistani Activist Critical of Military Returns after Disappearing a Year Ago,” RFE/RL, March 10, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-activist-disappeared-critical-of-milit…
- 8. “Pakistan activist Waqass Goraya: The state tortured me,” BBC News, March 9, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39219307.
- 9. “Aurat March organisers receive online death threats,” Reuters, via Dawn, last updated March 17, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1470144.
- 10. “Girl commits suicide over blackmail,” Dawn, December 17, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1451793/girl-commits-suicide-over-blackmail.
- 11. “Girl in Badin consumes poison due to social media blackmailing,” GEO TV, May 20, 2019, https://www.geo.tv/latest/237803-girl-in-badin-consumes-poison-due-to-s…; “Police register case of Badin girl who succumbed to social media blackmailing,” Pakistan Today, last updated May 21, 2019, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2019/05/21/police-register-case-of-bad….
- 12. “Transgender person ‘gang-raped, videotaped’ in Peshawar,” The Express Tribune, November 12, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1845812/1-transgender-person-gang-raped-vi….
- 13. “Married woman 'gang-raped, videotaped' in Rawalpindi,” The Express Tribune, January 7, 2019, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1883280/1-married-woman-gang-raped-videota….
- 14. “Newlywed woman killed by husband for texting,” The Express Tribune, July 27, 2018, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1767133/1-newlywed-woman-killed-husband-te….
- 15. Imran Gabol, “Qandeel Baloch murdered by brother in Multan: police,” Dawn, last updated July 26, 2016, https://www.dawn.com/news/1271213.
- 16. “Invasion of Privacy and the Murder of Qandeel Baloch,” Digital Rights Foundation, via GenderIT, July 21, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20170820162859/http://www.genderit.org/node….
- 17. Jon Boone, “‘She feared no one': the life and death of Qandeel Baloch,” The Guardian, September 22, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/22/qandeel-baloch-feared-no-….
- 18. Asher John, “FIA officials forced me to have sex with main blasphemy accused, claims injured suspect,” Pakistan Today, last updated August 25, 2018, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2018/02/24/fia-officials-forced-me-to-….
|Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack?||03|
Technical attacks against the websites of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), opposition groups, and activists are common in Pakistan, though many go unreported. During the coverage period 55 female activists and journalists reached out to Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation after being targeted by sophisticated email-based phishing attack aimed at obtaining private information.1
During the previous period, Amnesty International reported digital attacks on human rights defenders, such as hacked accounts and devices, and the installation of spyware. The attackers allegedly employed fake online identities and social media profiles to target activists.2 The software used in these attack, Crimson, has previously been used against Indian military and diplomatic figures.3
There were also reported breaches of data originally collected for government initiatives. Private pictures of citizens from CCTV cameras, collected by the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA), were leaked, according to January 2019 news reports.4 In the absence of a data protection law, those affected have limited opportunities for remedy (see C5 and C6). In July 2018, NADRA denied reports of a data breach the previous month, allegedly in which voter demographics were released.5
Cross-border cyberattacks between Pakistan and India continue.6 After tensions between the two nations escalated in early 2019 following a deadly suicide attack in Pulwama, a city in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a number of Pakistani sites were allegedly targeted by Indian hackers,7 including the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.8 In the past, hackers on both sides have claimed to target state websites. Among the most serious were reports in 2017 that Indian hackers had targeted Pakistani airports in Islamabad, Peshawar, Multan, and Karachi.9
- 1. Jahangir, “The mechanics of silencing dissent.”
- 2. “Human Rights Under Surveillance: Digital Threats against Human Rights Defenders in Pakistan,” Amnesty International, May 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ASA3383662018ENGLISH.PDF.
- 3. Secunder Kermani, “Pakistan activists targeted in Facebook attacks,” BBC News, 15 May 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44107381.
- 4. “Safe City Project not so safe as pictures of passengers’ private life leaked,” Pakistan Today, last updated January 20, 2019, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2019/01/20/safe-city-project-not-so-sa….
- 5. “Fissures in ECP over ‘threat’ to data security,” Dawn, last updated June 19, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1414683.
- 6. “Cybercrimes: Pakistan lacks facilities to trace hackers,” The Express Tribune, February 1, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150205015312/http://tribune.com.pk/story/….
- 7. “Pulwama attack: Pakistani websites hacked, here's the list,” The Times of India, last updated February 18, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/gadgets-news/pulwama-attack-pakista….
- 8. Naveed Siddiqui, “Ministry of Foreign Affairs website hacked, inaccesible in several countries,” Dawn, February 16, 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1464217.
- 9. “India, Pakistan cyber war intensifies,” The News International, January 4, 2017, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/176619-India-Pakistan-cyber-war-intens….
Pakistani-controlled Kashmir is not covered in this report. Certain territories that are assessed separately in Freedom House's Freedom in the World report are excluded from the relevant country reports in Freedom on the Net, as conditions in such territories differ significantly from those in the rest of the country.
Freedom in the World StatusPartly Free
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