Govt Moves To Strengthen Grip On YouTube Channels, Online Media

Govt Moves To Strengthen Grip On YouTube Channels, Online Media
Having once benefited from the freedom offered by the world wide web when even the name of its supremo was banned from being uttered on national television and in newspapers, it seems that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led coalition government will utilise its last few weeks in office to licence and regulate the mushroom growth of 'independent' web-based channels.

The federal cabinet met in Islamabad on Wednesday with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the chair. The cabinet deliberated upon and approved several legislative and non-legislative matters.

As part of legislative business, it approved the E-Safety Bill 2023, which had been recommended by the Federal Information Technology and Telecommunication Ministry (MoITT). On the surface, the bill aims to protect Pakistanis operating online from online harassment, cyber bullying, blackmailing etc.

The bill, however, also includes provisions to set up a regulatory body to regulate online media. This authority will be empowered to fine violators and grant licenses to web channels along with news websites.

Moreover, the cyber crimes wing will be shifted to the new authority as the government hopes to use it to prevent crimes such as online harassment, cyber bullying, and blackmail among others.

While the bill will be further discussed in the relevant parliamentary bodies before voting in the National Assembly and then possible adoption, it has caused concern amongst a certain segment of the public, especially those who operate channels online.

It may be noted here that the government has, on past occasions, sought to regulate online media, seeking to register websites, web channels and Youtube channels. YouTube channels once helped build the narrative for the incumbent government. But since the Imran Khan regime was overthrown, the very platforms were used by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to build their narrative.

Perhaps in this context, the government felt a need to draft a new law rather than amend the very powerful Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and other existing laws since they are seen as either too ineffective or too maligned.

The federal cabinet also passed the Personal Data Protection Bill 2023 on the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication recommendation.

Under this law, a comprehensive framework will be established to protect the public from the unauthorised use of their data on "all types of online services, online shopping, data provided to various companies, and social networking websites in Pakistan."

Moreover, it will prohibit sharing users' information/data with any company, individual, or government organisation without their permission.

The main clause of the bill states, "the National Commission for Personal Data Protection (NCPDP) will be established which will act as a civil court to protect the private documents/data of the users and redress the grievances of the complainants".

When contacted, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) President Afzal Butt appreciated the government's decision to introduce a bill on protecting citizens' data, noting that it is something that many developed countries legislated on years ago.

"Right of privacy is the right of every user," he said, mentioning that the authorities must protect users' privacy.

Regarding the E-safety bill and reports of government efforts to create an authority to regulate online media, Butt said that the draft bill has yet to be shared with PFUJ for deliberation.

Political observers observed that this bill may not become law given that the government has just days left in its tenure.

It is pertinent to note that the government has already come under consideration for tabling a bill to amend the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) law that imposes new penalties and restricts television channels on the time it can show ads during a single hour of programming apart from introducing definitions of 'disinformation' and 'misinformation' and have made it binding for news outlets to not air news which does not adhere to the identified definitions and standards of news.

Other decisions

The federal cabinet also assented to a draft amendment bill to amend the Investment Board Ordinance 2001 for promoting foreign investment in Pakistan.

The amendment will empower the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) and establish basic structures, working procedures, and cooperation mechanisms with various ministries and provincial governments.

After passing the law, the SIFC will help the country quickly implement foreign investment projects.

PM Shehbaz said the government was implementing a 'Whole of the Government Policy' to promote foreign direct investment in the country.

The policy would help expedite the implementation process of the projects under foreign investment.

The prime minister appreciated Minister of State for Petroleum Dr Musadik Malik's successful efforts in finalising the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) agreement with Azerbaijan.

"This agreement is not only an important step forward to promote bilateral trade ties with Azerbaijan, but it will also prove to be a milestone for the energy security of Pakistan," he added.

On the recommendation of the Ministry of Anti-Narcotics, the federal cabinet established a ministerial committee under the chairmanship of Federal Minister for Defense Khawaja Muhammad Asif to finalise the contents of the National Cannabis Policy.

In this regard, the committee will present its recommendation to the federal committee in the next meeting.

The federal cabinet approved the reorganisation of accountability courts on the recommendation of the Ministry of Law and Justice, under which 11 accountability courts will be changed into seven banking courts, two intellectual tribunals, a special court central, and a special court in Balochistan. This restructuring will not incur any additional costs.

The federal cabinet also approved the reorganisation of the Board of Directors of Sui Northern Gas Pipeline (SNGPL), besides approving the appointment of members of the Selection Committee of Islamabad Healthcare Regulatory Authority.

The federal cabinet approved the National Adaptation Plan 2023 on the Ministry of Climate Change's recommendation. Under the plan, the government and other partners will take measures to protect climate-prone communities from the adverse effects of climate change.

On the Ministry of Climate Change's recommendation, the federal cabinet referred the Islamabad Nature Conservation and Wild Life Management Act, 2023, to the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases (CCLC) to protect wildlife and natural assets in Islamabad.

The federal cabinet approved the inclusion and removal of names in the Exit Control List (ECL) on the recommendation of the Ministry of Interior.

Furthermore, the cabinet also approved an order that if the reason for including names in the passport control list and the exit control list are the same, then the name will be removed from the exit control list along with the name from the passport control list.