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Bytes for All, Pakistan, at the Internet Freedom Festival. Valencia, 4 March 2016Bytes for All, Pakistan, at the Internet Freedom Festival. Valencia, 4 March 2016

“Taboos are on issues like LGBT, more than on fundamentalist and sectarian speech.” “Political expression, religious expression, minorities, human rights defenders, journalists are under threat.” “There is a feeling of panic, references to vague threats that end up criminalising journalists and human rights defenders.” These were some of the concerns shared by Bytes for All, Pakistan during a powerful session on the state of surveillance and censorship in the country, at the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, 4 March.

The session, facilitated by APC’s Leila Nachawati Rego, presented the participants with context on Pakistan, a country with a weak democracy, challenged by military ruling. During the last decade, in the context of the “war on terror”, Pakistan has faced a long series of attacks by Taliban forces and other armed groups. To advance their agendas and get support, these groups went from using illegal radio transmissions to increasingly engaging in social media conversations, igniting extremism and division in the general population.

While radio channels were seized before, now the government is introducing new regulations to govern internet access and usage in the country, in the name of national security. “Cybercrime” and terrorism are increasingly used to rewrite the protections for privacy and the right to free expression, which translated into the drafting of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) in January 2015. Although it allegedly intends to address new digital issues, such as cyber stalking and online harassment, the PECB contains such broad legal provisions that it would criminalise everyday acts of expression while undermining the right to privacy of Pakistani citizens.

The new regulations would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, which has stirred strong reactions, with a diversity of responses from civil society and human rights advocates. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of awareness. Although Pakistani citizens are heavy users of social media, most people are not aware of their rights, the importance of privacy issues, and the need to protect diversity, including voices from minority groups, whether religious or ethnic.

What is ahead, and what can be done? was the question at stake, after this chilling context was presented.

Bytes for All, Pakistan stressed the need to put more effort into minimising the threats posed by the new Pakistani legislation. “Having an independent privacy commissioner, like other countries have, would be really helpful,” they highlighted.

The establishment last year of a National Human Rights Commission, which is an obligation under UN agreements, could also be a turning point, ensuring people can be involved.

The creation of a Charter of Demands has also become an important initiative. The charter, developed by Bytes for All, Pakistan, Media Matters for Democracy, APC and supporting organisations, has helped advocate against the PECB. It rejects the understanding of security in the context of national security only, which disregards personal security and protection, and insists on focusing on human rights and citizens’ protection in the legislative process. It asks the Pakistani government to review the draft bill with full consideration of the human rights framework, ensuring basic protections for citizens, strengthening data protection clauses in the bill, and developing an action plan that includes experts on digital rights.

The charter is the latest in a series of advocacy efforts to prevent the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill from being tabled in the Parliament in its current form. Civil society organisations including ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, Privacy International, Digital Rights Foundation and APC recently released a joint statement to urge members of the Senate of Pakistan to take a stand against the bill.

Read also: Expression Restricted. An Account of Online Expression in Pakistan .

See also: APC’s project Advocacy for Change through Technology in India, Malaysia and Pakistan .