Critics say the space for free speech is shrinking in Pakistan, where officials are accused of expanding restrictions on the free flow of information to social-media sites.
Pakistan’s independent media has been gagged in recent years by bans, shutdowns, and the sacking of prominent reporters.
And human rights advocates and political activists who have been overly critical of authorities have been threatened, attacked, or arrested on what international watchdogs say are trumped-up charges.
Now the crackdown has spread to cyberspace.
Social media, where many people have turned to get the word out, is coming under growing pressure in Pakistan.
Pakistani rights activists say the clampdown on social media is a potential precursor to even greater censorship.
“Some elements in the state institutions want to impose the official narrative on people,” Adnan Rehmat, a Pakistani journalist and media activist, told RFE/RL. “Those elements have already succeeded in imposing certain bans on television channels and newspapers. Their next target is social media.”
Many have pointed the finger at the powerful Pakistani military, accusing the institution of being behind the attempt to crush dissent.
The country’s military has an oversized role in the domestic and foreign affairs of the South Asian nation of 220 million people.
Pakistan’s telecommunications regulator last month issued a “final warning” to the Chinese-owned TikTok video app over explicit content posted on the platform, while the Singapore-based Bigo Live, a live-streaming platform, was blocked for the same reason.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said on July 21 that it has received “widespread complaints” about “immoral, obscene, and vulgar” content on the apps. It said the apps failed to “moderate content.”
TikTok’s popularity has grown among Pakistani youth, who account for around 70 percent of the population. The app has been downloaded almost 39 million times, while Bigo Live has been downloaded over 17 million times in Pakistan.
Iqbal Khattak, the Reporters Without Borders representative in Pakistan, told RFE/RL that the government threatening to ban TikTok and blocking Bigo Live instead of engaging both platforms “may prove a serious setback to the free flow of information.”
“Pakistani authorities appear increasingly frustrated at the increasing numbers of people seeking information and the digital world is catering to their demands,” he said.
“The authorities can counter disinformation and ‘immoral content’ by sharing real information and moral content instead of banning these platforms,” he added.
In February, authorities passed new laws it said would target “terrorism and fake news” on social-media platforms.
The Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020 require social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to block or remove posts that are considered offensive by the government. Authorities can also acquire data and information from those companies.
Authorities said the new regulations would help them monitor and mitigate online content that has to do with “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, fake news, incitement to violence and national security.”
But the measures were passed in secret, with critics saying the rules paved the way for mass censorship.
That came after authorities passed a controversial cybercrime law in 2016 that granted sweeping powers to the government to block online content considered to be against “the glory of Islam or the integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan or…public order, decency or morality.”
Offenders can face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
Critics say the moves are intended to curtail free speech and have led to unfair prosecutions.
“The state is trying to curb people’s right to freedom of expression using different excuses,” Usama Khilji, director of the Pakistani digital rights group Bolo Bhi, told RFE/RL.
He added that the recent blocking of social-media platforms has illustrated how “new momentum is building to restrict freedom of expression on social media.”
Maria Umar, the head of the Women’s Digital League, an online platform that provides digital training and work to Pakistani women, told RFE/RL that social media has given a voice to the voiceless in Pakistan, a deeply religious and conservative Muslim country.
“Women who used to stay silent regarding their rights or problems, are now openly mentioning their problems through social-media platforms,” she said. “Similarly, transgender rights activists and civil society activists are boldly raising their voice via social media. Where will these people go if the government bans social-media platforms?”
Facebook restricted some 2,149 posts in Pakistan in the second half of 2019, one of the highest totals in any country, according to its figures.
Meanwhile, Twitter received requests from the Pakistani authorities to remove content from 1,798 accounts in the first half of 2019, according to its figures.
Scores of Pakistani journalists and activists have received legal notices from Twitter on behalf of the government, which warned users that their tweets were in violation of the law.
U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House said Pakistani authorities blocked more than 800,000 websites and platforms from being accessed within the country, including political, religious, and social content, from June 2018 to May 2019.
In 2012, authorities banned YouTube for four years because of a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad that hard-line clerics said was blasphemous.