On May 22, 2015, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information Technology took a step away from the execution of the Electronic Crimes Bill 2015.
The meeting, chaired by Captain (r) Safdar, gave civil society organisations a chance to add their two cents on the bill, following which it was decided that the bill needs a lot more work before it can be sent forward for a final approval. The news was met with great relief from all sides, but also went without much fanfare in traditional media.
When news about the bill first broke out people cheered for a miniscule second before gaping in horror at the contents. Civil society organisations began trying to get the government onto the same page – and for a bit it seemed like nothing would work. What was remarkable was the manner in which traditional media yawned at the issue, only moments after it had piqued their interest.
“It is a national security matter and TV channels would not want to offend the government”
So what went wrong?
“The old media appears to be a little reticent in opposing the cybercrime bill,” says Raza Rumi, a journalist who has had a taste of both electronic and print media.
“The key reason is that it is a national security matter and TV channels would not want to offend the government or security establishment given the environment. Perhaps the bill which will clip the wings of new media may be viewed as a way to keep the hegemony of old media intact,” he explains.
But snuffing social media out isn’t going to work out for traditional media in the long term either.
“More and more people are now looking to new media for news and comment so if new freedoms are curtailed it might help the old media in the short term. However, what is being forgotten is that censorship is not a partial process. Once it’s in practice it engulfs all outlets of speech and information. Overtime the media houses will also suffer if they don’t raise their voice against curbing of democratic freedoms,” Rumi says.
Tahir Imran, a social media producer with BBC Urdu feels that social media can be its own undoing. “There are two aspects of this whole scenario. The first one is that yes, social media is an emerging power and it is acting as a parallel medium to the conventional and mainstream media because it gives voice to individual and also an unprecedented access to influential people,” he says.
“The other part is that in Pakistan around 10 per cent of the people have access to internet. Social media cannot challenge the monopoly of conventional media, especially electronic media, as it does not have the numbers,” he adds.
“Social media cannot challenge the monopoly of conventional media”
Mainstream media see social media as nothing more than a marketing tool. Not a source of news that is worthy of their attention.
“As I see it it’s not going to become a game changer, although it is gaining momentum. One factor that has undermined its credibility and usefulness is the arrival of PTI trolls and paid cadre who just create trends for the sake of it,” Imran says while trying to explain why social media isn’t the horse traditional media will bet its money on.
Bolo Bhi Director Fareiha Aziz confirms Imran’s views in part, while expanding on the reason most channels took their time before eventually giving the issue space.
“Many traditional journalists see only the negative side of social media – that they get attacked for instance. And, yes, many times content is driven by what is being discussed on social media – mostly because the issue does not get a voice on mainstream media till it is pushed. And I think this is unnerving for some as well.”
While mainstream media has a book of rules to follow, social media has become a wild child that answers to no one.
“Mainstream media is regulated and to quite a degree controlled in terms of what can be said or highlighted. Social media is not subjected to such controls. Also social media is about individual expression of citizens,” Aziz maintains.
“Mainstream media is an industry, it is licensed activity and thus regulated to a degree. So many think the same regulation and control should also extend to social media, which isn’t however any body’s licensee,” she says.
However, can a PEMRA like entity whip social media into shape? Aziz isn’t so sure.
“Social media is a neutral platform used by people. Sometimes that use is beneficial and sometimes it is not. How to deal with the negative aspects has to be debated but in no way can or should the PEMRA model be applied to it.
“This unfortunately is the approach of many within mainstream media because the distinction between the two platforms is not drawn. And therefore there is a misconception and fear of it,” she said.
Opinion makers are no longer found in news bureaus – news itself has evolved. Aziz explains this when she talks about the new equation.
“The traditional concept of opinion makers has changed. Social media reversed that equation by allowing citizen voices versus those given column space or air time on mainstream media. Merits and substance of a multitude of views aside, this too has been disconcerting I feel, who feel others may be overstepping. Especially when those from mainstream media – be it organisations or those who belong to them – get questioned or criticised.”
The bill has been repeatedly touted as a major part of National Action Plan
Social media is not going anywhere and a solution needs to be found that doesn’t strangle the masses in the process.
“Yes, we need to deal with the negative aspects of social media but not in a way that limits citizens’ expression, because, yes, every citizen has the right to hold and express a view through a public platform which was not available to too them in the same manner before,” Aziz says.
Traditional media may have taken its time but it did sober up to the impact social media has on them, too. Afia Salam tackled the bill in the capacity of a former media person. She believed that by ignoring the issue TV channels were more or less shooting themselves in the foot.
“Reaction to the bill was lukewarm in the beginning but then backchannel efforts to indicate that the Bill will impact their online presence made them sit up and take notice and become an ally,” she informs.
Salam is of the view that the platform itself has become an extension of journalism.
“The serious among [traditional media] them, see it as an extension of journalism. The fact that it is still freer than the mainstream media is why you see things being discussed there before the mainstream media,” she says while explaining its utility.
Bytes for All has also been instrumental in raising a voice against the bill. Shazhad Ahmed, the head honcho, is looking for a human rights, pro-people version of the legislation to go into effect.
Ahmed thinks that the issue of traditional media giving the bill airtime isn’t as simple as it seems.
“Firstly, we do think that the media’s response towards this bill has been much warmer than ‘lukewarm’ if you look back at various sorts of draconian legislation that is now in force. However, activism isn’t as much the media’s job, as it is to report,” he asserts.
Ahmed also feels that the mainstream might not have been as free as it seems in helping sort the issue out. “It is also important to understand that despite the existence of many media outlets and countless television channels, we have good reason to believe that media content in Pakistan is heavily regulated by the state,” he says.
“At one end, journalists and proponents of free speech in Pakistan are an endangered species who continue to be hunted down systematically, while at the other end we see how incitement to violence against religious minorities, activists, NGOs and human rights defenders thrives unchecked on the media under the garb of free speech,” he laments.
What is left is a very specific type of narrative that is allowed. What gets filtered through and lands on the final print and picture isn’t a coincidence. “A very specific kind of narrative and mind-set is being propagated through the popular media, and critique of the cybercrime bill is not a part of this agenda,” Ahmed maintains.
There is also the question of what’s good for the country. The bill has been repeatedly touted as a major part of the National Action Plan (NAP), a tool that will supposedly help keep terrorism at bay.
“The prevailing environment focused on national security means that few people are willing to criticise a bill that purports to be in the interest of security, because it opens them up to being labelled as traitors,” he says.
“Many news consumers don’t see the problem with restricting content if it will limit the ability of terrorists to use the media. Our difficult role is to show that not only do these restrictions come at a cost, but they also aren’t the solution to terrorism,” he added.
Nighat Daad is just as furious at the assumptions made by the state that the bill can help tackle extremists. Her work as the Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation has ensured that she stays plugged into anything and everything related to the bill.
Her perspective can help people understand why the bill needs to be highlighted as much as possible in all forms of media. “We’ve been lobbying with the government for the last five years, but I don’t think that our recommendations and demands will just be catered to by the government,” she says before adding that the law needs to be in line with the Budapest and European conventions to be effective.
“The current government has been working on the bill since the last two and a half years but they haven’t consulted civil society organizations, although the IT minister claims to have taken them all on board,” she informs.
The bill itself has many troubling aspects that need to be understood. Going back to Ahmed’s point on terrorism, Daad adds, “The IT minister keep insisting that the bill has to be made under the NAP. Our question is why? Don’t you understand that it is a temporary strategy to deal with terrorism? This law will haunt us for so many generations. It isn’t that easy to repeal a law or make amendments. So why are you making legislations under the NAP?” she asks.
“There are so many stringent punishments and classes that pertain to terrorism. There are so many clauses that are a repetition of different laws. For instance there is Clause 9 which is about glorification of hate speech and other offences, and the same clause, with the same wordings, is in the Anti-terrorism act 1997,” she adds.
Daad is of the opinion that existing laws need to be executed in a better fashion instead of reinventing the wheel. The bill has needless repetitions of many clauses that already exist in Pakistan’s law books. But the repetition is the least of people’s problems. “The same clause under the Anti Terrorism Act would have been dealt with by the police and courts – but here you’re handing over powers to the agencies, you’re giving powers to the FIA,” she laments.
“This means that through one law you want to empower the court, and you want to empower the agencies through another. We raised this issue in the May 22 meeting as well that so much repetition of the same laws should not be done,” she asserts.
“Another clause dealing with integrity is already present in the Pakistan Penal Code, I believe under section 506 or 509 which deals with the modesty of a woman. Why can’t you interpret and implement that properly? What is the need to address defamation? We already have a law for this.
The bill is currently under discussion and there will be several meetings to help elucidate just what should be done to it for it to be in a passable condition. Till then the electronic and traditional media would do well to start taking it a little more seriously.
“The government is in a hurry to pass the bill, I believe it should be finalised sometime in June,” Daad predicted without much enthusiasm.