An open-letter to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Dear Bilawal, thank you, but we expected more

Dear Bilawal,

It is with pleasure that we read the Manifesto of Pakistan Peoples Party. To tell you the truth, we had been skeptical. We had watched with sadness as Peoples Party towed the downtrodden path by self-serving decisions over the last few years. It was painful to watch the party’s approach towards human rights issues. More often than once, we felt that the party had moved far away from the principles that had previously given it credence as a political entity of integrity.

Thus seeing a well-developed manifesto is a pleasant surprise. Congratulations on identifying the areas that need serious work. And congratulations on having the courage to include important issues like the death penalty, impunity in cases of crimes committed in the name of religion, and freedom of association.

For us at Media Matters for Democracy, seeing a political party formally acknowledge the right to free expression as a cornerstone right — second only to the right to life — and lingering impunity in crimes against journalists is heartwarming. We thank you for that.

It is also heartening to see a pledge for legislation to ensure the proactive protection of journalists.

We strongly believe that journalistic freedoms are essential for democratic processes, and impunity in crimes against journalists has contributed to making Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism. Thus an expressed commitment to legislate for the protection of journalists and independent investigations in crimes against them is a much-needed step.

We, however, want to remind you that free expression isn’t a right limited to media, or journalists, as drawn-up in Pakistan Peoples Party’s Manifesto. It’s a fundamental right to be enjoyed and exercised by the citizens of Pakistan. Crimes against free expression of citizens are equally damaging to a democratic society as are the crimes against journalists. It is important to recognise that the continued failure of consecutive governments to ensure media freedoms has now created an environment where the threats to freedom of expression have spread far beyond the media itself.

Having said that, we must confess that reading the Manifesto, we are also very disappointed.

In the digital age, open and free access to the Internet and other digital mediums is essential for free expression. Access to the Internet is not a luxury anymore, but a fundamental human right, and we are very sad to see that Pakistan Peoples Party’s Manifesto refers to ‘digital technologies’ only as a part of service delivery and not as a key avenue for the enjoyment of human rights.

Civil liberties and human rights in today’s world have to be protected both online and offline.  The true enjoyment of the basic right to free of expression in the digital age is interlinked with the protection of other digital freedoms and rights including data protection mechanisms and a citizen-friendly privacy protection regime.

As you would recall, Pakistan Peoples Party was one of the few who stood by our side and advocated for reforms in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, a law that gives overly broad online-content regulation powers to the Executive. Many of PPP’s leaders were personally invested in advocating for a progressive cybercrimes law, and other digital-rights-friendly policies in Pakistan.

We are sad to see that none of those efforts have translated into the party’s Manifesto.

Just this year we have seen multiple cases of harassment and abuse of vocal human rights defenders and political workers, especially those who exercise their right to free expression in digital spaces. We have seen the misuse of laws like Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016 to silence dissenting voices. We have seen instances of wide-scale censorship, bans and network shutdowns. And most importantly, we have seen these acts framed as ‘patriotic’, and dissent — an essential aspect of any democracy — labeled as ‘anti-national’.

As a progressive party with a history of human rights work, we trust you to recognise that the legislative considerations to ensure human rights cannot be effective unless and until the legislative framework is responsive to the opportunities and challenges presented by Internet and communication technologies. We strongly urge you to express a commitment to human rights both online and offline, and to reforming laws that stand to jeopardise digital freedoms in Pakistan such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016. We also urge you to expand your efforts for the right to free expression to the citizenry at large and to make conducive policies to deal with crimes against expression itself.

In this context, we hope and request PPP to:

Make sure that after General Elections 2018, the PPP would use its parliamentarians and parliamentary position to further the right to free expression for all citizens including journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, political activists and other users of digital media;

Be cognisant of the full range of rights that have a direct impact on freedom of expression in the digital age, in particular, the right to privacy and data protection, and bring about necessary legislation and legislative reforms, including but not limited to Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016;

Do away with the policy of arbitrary network shutdowns, and express a commitment to improving quality access to the Internet for all in Pakistan;

Exercise its parliamentary position, whether within the government or as opposition, to ensure that regulatory bodies such as PTA and PEMRA and ministries are not involved in furthering censorship, especially censorship of political content;

Make sure that the journalist protection and safety legislation, committed in its manifesto, ensures the facilitation of effective investigations in new and previous cases of crimes against journalists; and

Make sure that the journalist protection and safety legislation creates the space for the criminalisation and prosecution of digital threats and attacks on journalists.

We hope that PPP will hold true to its stated ideology and commitments made in the Manifesto. We also hope that you and your party will recognise and ackowledge the importance of digital freedoms, and the fact that digital rights are humans rights and thus should be given equal space.

As a civil society organisation committed to the advancement of freedom of expression and digital rights in Pakistan, let us assure you that you’ll have our complete and unflinching support in working towards an environment where the full range of civil liberties, in particular, FoE and digital rights are protected.

Image Courtesy: Daily Pakistan