By Nowmay Opalinski *
The Chinese are entering Pakistan’s mainstream media, and country-level bilateral cooperation on telecommunications infrastructure and surveillance is growing. This development takes place against the background of Pakistan’s developing country efforts to censor online content domestically. How does this situation benefit China? Where does China’s big picture media strategy fit in with this?
Censorship of Pakistan with Chinese Characteristics?
Since 2012, the Pakistani government has tried to implement a national firewall to tighten control over content shared online. Introduction Pakistan’s Electronic Crime Act in 2016 is should to organize dangerous content such as terrorist propaganda. However, this has also been used to censor opposition leaders and criticism of the government.
In January 2020, Pakistan adopted a set of new rules that were framed Citizens Protection Regulations (Against Online Dangers), which requires a plan for the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to appoint a national coordinator responsible for regulation of online content. Pakistan Human Rights Commission and Pakistan Federal Journalists Union criticized this step, and has denied it unconstitutionality. Reporter Without Limits and lawyer highlights that blurred definitions of malicious content leave room for arbitrary removal of content. The application of Article 6 (s) also allows the deactivation of user data encryption when it forces social media companies to provide extensive information, including “customer information, traffic data, content data and other information or data.”
This new regulation includes obligations to all social media companies to open offices in Pakistan, where strict monitoring of their ability to delete or block content will be enforced. It empowers national coordinators to request online platforms to submit all information, private or public. These steps can lead to an international social media platform to re-evaluate their operations in Pakistan, as emphasized by the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC) in statement to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
However, these new steps can also support China’s social media platforms as an alternative in the country. Chinese content sensors on the online platform can be applied uniformly, regardless of whether an application is being used domestically or abroad. Thus they can easily adapt to Pakistan’s new regulations, and Beijing can even work with Islamabad to determine the level of internet censorship in Pakistan.
While such cooperation has not yet taken place, China’s growing footprint in Pakistan’s telecommunications infrastructure could make it possible. For example, new cross-border fiber optic cables that move from Xinjiang to Rawalpindi via Khunjerab will involve routing internet traffic through a Chinese-regulated network. This can facilitate the export of Chinese firewall systems to Pakistan through direct contact. China has been already exported social media surveillance tools to several countries. It also shows its internet control model in the UN mandated working group on international cyber norms by challenging “Internet freedom and multi-stakeholder governance.”
Alignment with China’s Big Picture Media Strategy
In December 2019, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Pakistan’s prime minister’s special assistant for information, urging local Pakistani media to play an active role in promoting the Pakistan Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and to fight “negative propaganda.” His remarks came a month after the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Alice Wells, be criticized China Road and Belt (BRI) and CPEC Initiatives.
Since a long time ago, China and Pakistan continues to repeat the need for closer media cooperation. This has begun to take shape, with the Chinese government’s Xinhua news agency sign MoU with local Pakistani media, which includes the provision of free content in English and Urdu for their Pakistani colleagues. While content provisions are possible felt as a good opportunity for the country the shrinking of the media industry, it could also be a step towards standardizing mainstream media information to promote BRI projects in Pakistan.
There is a broader strategy here. China now exports news production through institutions such as Belt and Road News Network. It has developed ‘Flood’ strategy, which involves publishing large amounts of online content through various state-sponsored channels. In a recent interview, a government-run Pakistan Television Company official reported that the “Rapid Response Initiative System” will be implemented to coordinate these efforts China’s Net Economy (online news organization based in Beijing) and Pakistan China Institute (an Islamabad-based pro-Beijing think-tank) to systematically fight negative views of the CPEC. Subsidized travel for Pakistani journalists with training session in China also often organized. Beijing wants to promote a new journalism model throughout the world, and hold international conferences such as the Belt and Road Journalist Forum and the China-Pakistan Media Forum to deliver news. Beyond issues related to content, Chinese investment in the media sector especially prefers state-owned outlets more than an independent and / or private entity. In the midst of Pakistani media financial crisisThe increasing support of China will ultimately strengthen government-run media over the struggle of independent outlets, which therefore serve the interests of both governments.
As China and Pakistan increase their media cooperation, Beijing’s controlled internet model may be a workable choice for Islamabad. Already, over the past two years, criticism of the CPEC has greatly diminished in the Pakistani media landscape. The combination of recent censorship with Chinese support in the field of surveillance technology can ultimately result in a sharp decline in Pakistani internet freedom.
*Now Opalinski is a Research Intern with the Center for Internal and Regional Security (IReS), IPCS.
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