Dawn Editorial 24 September 2019

Blocking websites unlawfully

AFTER years of flagrant abuse of power, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has finally been called out on its practice of blocking websites in an ad-hoc, non-transparent manner with no opportunity to challenge its decisions. The Islamabad High Court, on hearing a petition filed by the left-wing Awami Workers Party for the blocking of its website, ruled that the authority had blocked over 800,000 websites in violation of the statutory provision. Through the PTA’s own admission, it was learnt that no rules had been established for the blocking of websites, despite having in place the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act since 2016, which explicitly requires the regulatory body to do so. Sub-section 1 of Section 37 of Peca gives PTA the authority to block websites if the content contained therein is deemed to be against the glory of Islam, the integrity, security and defence of Pakistan, public order, and morality or is in contempt of court. However, sub-section 2 of Section 37 states that, “the authority shall, with the approval of the federal government, prescribe rules providing for, among other matters, safeguards, transparent process and effective oversight mechanism for exercise of power under sub-section 1”.
It was also uncovered that the PTA had blocked the AWP website on the recommendation of an intelligence agency. This finding, while alarming, is only to be expected, given the years of complaints and criticism by multiple stakeholders, including NGOs working on internet issues, members of civil society etc, as well as detailed investigations undertaken by local and international publications and organisations that have established the role of the agencies in controlling the internet in Pakistan. In its detailed order, the court noted that given these circumstances, the PTA’s, “blocking of websites was indeed in violation of the principles of natural justice”. Such clarity on a contentious practice which amounts to the violation of basic rights to freedom of expression and the right to information is to be welcomed, even if over a decade late.
The court has now directed the authority to frame rules to govern the blocking of websites within a period of three months. It is to be hoped that the regulatory body takes on board all stakeholders in this process and utilises their input to finalise the mechanisms, without which — given the body’s tainted history — the newly established rules may result in even greater misuse and abuse of authority. This, in turn, will not allow any let-up in petitions being filed in the courts that would again have to correct the path that the state apparently wishes to take. In all of this, it is the ordinary citizens and businesses that will suffer.

 
 

Slide in SDGs

PAKISTAN’S continuous decline in rankings for the Sustainable Development Goals over the past few years — from 115 in 2016 to 130 in 2019 — is yet more evidence of how little successive governments have worked towards fulfilling their promises to the electorate. Whether it is garbage collection in Karachi or building schools in Balochistan, any effort in this direction by officials is guided by the level of public attention they are likely to receive. Under the present circumstances, a stifled economy and regional and domestic political constraints will make it even more difficult to focus on the efforts required to uplift the quality of life of millions of Pakistanis. Where there have been efforts for achieving development-related targets, they seem to have been stymied by the lack of resources and trained personnel, as well as bureaucratic delays. The 18th Amendment saw many subjects, including health, education and transport, devolved to the provincial governments that have mostly failed to build up the requisite financial and human capacity to manage and improve service delivery. For almost a decade, more than 70pc of SDG-related development responsibilities have rested with the provinces, while around 20pc are under federal authority.
To cope with the lack of finances and expertise, public-private partnerships and donor-funded development programmes are emerging as one solution. However, at the moment, the sustainability of such initiatives remains questionable. Governments might lighten their load by outsourcing short-term development projects to corporate or international donor agencies, but the projects usually lapse when funds dry up or are later abandoned by the provincial administrations. Moreover, successive federal and provincial governments are overlooking the biggest factor that ties almost all development-related SDGs together — the country’s burgeoning population. Pakistan has surpassed Brazil to become the fifth-most populous country in the world, and by 2030 (at the current population growth rate) it is expected to rise to fourth position. All development-related efforts will remain insufficient until the authorities take stock of the population growth rate. The present government’s Ehsaas programme is said to be linked to 11 out of the 17 SDGs, but it is still in the planning stage. Its effectiveness will only become clear when and if the programme is launched. Until then, the people will have to tighten their belts and hope that someone in public office thinks of them soon.

 
 

Digitising history

THANKS to modern technology, ancient history — from handwritten manuscripts to maps — can be made accessible to a large number of people at their fingertips. Now students, academics, researchers and journalists will be happy to learn that the Punjab archives department has announced its plan to digitise most of the 27,000 files it has sorted through amongst the ‘half-a-million’ documents in its collection, having recently purchased specialised scanners to this end. These invaluable primary sources of information should be available to the greater public by June 2020. The files in the authority’s possession are specific to the history of Punjab, with the oldest material dating back to the rule of Mughal emperor Shah Jehan in the 17th century, trailing down to the period under the Sikh empire and the British Raj. It is to the credit of the colonial rulers that they had a healthy obsession with documenting all transactions and observations — although for the reprehensible goal of maintaining empire.
Previously, only a privileged few were privy to this treasure trove of knowledge nestled within the confines of the Punjab Civil Secretariat. Much has been written about the ‘democratisation of knowledge’ and the concept of building ‘libraries without walls’, and such archival material will be of interest not only to Pakistanis, but to history enthusiasts everywhere in the world. Furthermore, digitisation and transferring data onto the internet is indeed the most effective way of ensuring that physical material does not get lost or damaged with the passage of time. Previous such efforts have been undertaken by the Sindh and Balochistan culture and archives departments, but due to the lack of funds and perhaps a lack of care on part of the governments, they have struggled to maintain their websites over time. One can only hope that the archives department is able to maintain the good work it set out to do, and collaborate with archival authorities globally to enrich its contribution.

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