Social media rules have been in the news lately with increasing frequency. On April 2, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) requested a report from the inter-ministerial committee tasked with reviewing the regulation. IHC listens to the petition filed against the implementation of the ‘Removal and blocking of online content that violates the law (Procedure, surveillance and safeguards) 2020 Rules’. This rule has caused a lot of controversy because no democratic society in the world has strict rules for blocking and removing online content deemed illegal by the government. The arbitrary manner in which the government developed and enforced these rules sparked uproar and outcry across the country from activists and media professionals. This is when PM Imran Khan forms a five-member committee under the Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari. Now the committee is supposed to submit its report with recommendations to the prime minister within a month. Although the committee has announced that it will organize public consultations with all stakeholders, it remains to be seen how such consultations take place and what mechanisms are adopted to incorporate feedback from these consultations.
We have seen before how ‘consulting’ has worked, which is why there is general skepticism surrounding this consultation as well. This consultation method does not produce a critical analysis of the problem at hand. It is important to check the objections and suggestions of stakeholders before finalizing the report. It is also important to invite members from the opposition to consultations and discuss proposed rules in parliament before finalizing them. This is very important for freedom of expression in this country.
The aim of democratic institutions such as the National Assembly and Senate is to provide a forum for such discussion. The government has shied away from parliamentary discussions, which are incompatible with the established democratic traditions. The government has complied with presidential regulations or issued unilateral rules. When it comes to legislation and rule-making, we need the government to seriously tackle differences of opinion. Petitioners who oppose this rule include PFUJ, which has been at the forefront of defending freedom of expression in the country. Now, the government must hold broad-based consultations and so that any rules placed on social media in Pakistan are not just a fig leaf for curbing dissent.