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ECPS Academy – Summer School 2023: “The abuse of the negative repercussions of an unmanaged globalisation in economics by the populists” by Dr Ibrahim Ozturk

This seminar aims to introduce the concept of populism in economics in terms of its causes (i.e., globalization, income inequality, financial crisis), its mechanism of execution in economics by the populists (i.e., macroeconomics and institutions of populism), and its consequences. The economic argument for populism is straightforward: poor economic performance feeds dissatisfaction with the status quo. It fosters support for populist alternatives when that poor performance occurs on the watch of mainstream parties. Rising inequality augments the ranks of the left behind, fanning dissatisfaction with economic management. Declining social mobility and a dearth of alternatives reinforce the sense of hopelessness and exclusion. However, unlike the argument they use when they are in opposition, in power, by denying and undermining professional and autonomous institutions, discrediting science and scientific knowledge, and rejecting resource constraints in economics, populists would give even more harm to the people they promised to help.

Lecturer Professor Ibrahim Ozturk is a visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg-Essen since 2017. He is studying developmental, institutional, and international economics. His research focuses on the Japanese, Turkish, and Chinese economies. Currently, he is working on emerging hybrid governance models and the rise of populism in the Emerging Market Economies. As a part of that interest, he studies the institutional quality of China’s Modern Silk Road Project /The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its governance model, and implications for the global system. He also teaches courses on business and entrepreneurship in the Emerging Market Economies, such as BRICS/MINT countries. Ozturk’s Ph.D. thesis is on the rise and decline of Japan’s developmental institutions in the post-Second WWII era. Dr. Ozturk has worked at different public and private universities as both a part-time and full-time lecturer/researcher between 1992-2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. In 1998, he worked as a visiting fellow at Keio University, in Tokyo, and again in 2003 at Tokyo University. He’s also been a visiting fellow at JETRO/AJIKEN (2004); at North American University, in Houston, Texas (2014-2015); and in Duisburg/Germany at the University of Duisburg-Essen (2017-2020). Dr. Ozturk is one of the founders of the Istanbul Japan Research Association (2003-2013) and the Asian Studies Center of Bosporus University (2010-2013). He has served as a consultant to business associations and companies for many years. He has also been a columnist and TV-commentator. Dr. Ozturk’s native language is Turkish; he is fluent in English, intermediate in German, and lower-intermediate in Japanese.

Moderator Dr Dusan Spasojevic is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade. His main fields of interest are political parties, civil society, populism and the post-communist democratization process. Spasojević is a member of the steering board of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) and the editor of Political Perspectives, scientific journal published by FPS Belgrade and Zagreb.

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ECPS Academy – Summer School 2023: “COVID-19 and the evolving nature of medical populism” by Dr Gideon Lasco

Over 3 years since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous political analyses have extensively documented how political actors have responded to the health crisis, including the resort of many of them to populist performances. Less established, however, are how these actors evolve their political styles as the pandemic also evolves politically, socially, and epidemiologically. This presentation reviews and critically engages with the concept of medical populism, its elements of spectacularization, simplification, and forging of divisions, and the literature on its figurations during the pandemic in different countries. It then (re)applies this concept to significant events in the pandemic after the initial responses – e.g. the development of vaccines, the emergence of variants, the debates over whether the pandemic is over. Overall, this longer-term analysis shows that while politicians continue to dramatize their responses, offer simplistic solutions, and divide their public, these characteristics do not necessarily coexist at a given political moment. Medical populism is viewed as a repertoire of styles rather than a fixed set of characteristics. Reading List Lasco, G. (2020). Medical populism and the COVID-19 pandemic. Global public health, 15(10), 1417-1429.

Lecturer Gideon Lasco, MD, PhD, is a physician and medical anthropologist. He is a senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s Department of Anthropology, affiliate faculty at the UP College of Medicine’s Social Medicine Unit, a research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Development Studies Program, and an honorary fellow at Hong Kong University’s Centre for Criminology. Dr Lasco’s research projects have focused on contemporary health issues, including drug issues, COVID-19, health systems, and politics of health, and yielded over 50 journal articles and book chapters in the past five years. They have also led to two academic books: Drugs and Philippines Society (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2021), an edited volume which features critical perspectives on drug use and drug policy in the country, as well as Height Matters, a forthcoming monograph on human stature with the University of the Philippines Press. He also maintains a weekly column on health, culture, and national affairs in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and a column in SAPIENS. This online anthropology magazine focuses on the relationships of humans with other species.

Moderator Dr Vassilis Petsinis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary (Institute of Global Studies). He is a political scientist with expertise in European Politics and Ethnopolitics. Dr Petsinis has conducted research and taught at universities and research institutes in Estonia (Tartu University), Germany (Herder Institut in Marburg), Denmark (Copenhagen University), Sweden (Lund University, Malmö University, Södertörns University, and Uppsala University), Hungary (Collegium Budapest/Centre for Advanced Study), Slovakia (Comenius University in Bratislava), Romania (New Europe College), and Serbia (University of Novi Sad). He holds a PhD in Russian & East European Studies from the University of Birmingham (UK).

Respondent Dr Maria Paula Prates is a medical anthropologist at the Department of Anthropology at UCL. She is interested in the embodied inequalities of the Anthropocene, especially that concerning Indigenous Women in lowland South America. She has worked with and among the Guaran-Mbyá in the last 20 years. She has ongoing research projects in reproductive justice, encompassing birthing, unconsented episiotomies, sterilization and c-section, and the imbricated relation between Tuberculosis and environmental degradation. She worked as an Adjunct Professor in the Anthropology of Health at UFCSPA, Brazil. She moved to the UK in 2018 as a Newton International Fellowship holder awarded by the British Academy and Newton Fund.

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ECPS Academy – Summer School 2023: “Health crisis and populism” by Dr Ewen Speed

Lecturer Dr Ewen Speed is a Professor of Medical Sociology in the School of Health and Social Care at the University of Essex. He has research interests in health policy, particularly in the context of the NHS. He is also interested in critical approaches to understanding engagement and involvement in healthcare, and in critical approaches to psychology and psychiatry. He is currently an Associate Editor for the journal Critical Public Health. He is also a member of the National Institute of Health Research East of England Applied Research Collaboration, contributing directly to the Inclusive Involvement in Research for Practice Led Health and Social Care theme and is Implementation Lead for this theme.

Moderator Caitlin R. Williams is a PhD candidate and Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is also a researcher and advocate whose work centers on scaling and sustaining policies, programs, and practices that advance health, rights, and justice. Meanwhile, she serves as a Research Consultant with the Instituto de Efectividad Clínica y Sanitaria in Buenos Aires, Argentina and a Research Collaborator with the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (Atlanta, GA, USA). Some of her recent projects include validating measures of global policy indicators for maternal health (including abortion access), assessing the threat posed by populist nationalism to human rights-based approaches to health, and analyzing national policies on obstetric violence and respectful maternity care. Caitlin has contributed her expertise to amicus briefs for cases in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, a memo to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, and a statement to the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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ECPS Academy – Summer School 2023: “The Russian-Ukrainian war and the changing forms of Russian populism” by Dr Neil Robinson

‘Official populism’ developed in Russia in the 2010s to provide a project from Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. This project centred on a particular relationship that Putin claimed existed between the state and the people in Russia. It was developed to counter other possible populist projects based on nationalism and/or anti-corruption campaigning. The ‘official populist’ project helped to close the political space in Russia after 2012. Still, it was at risk of failing because it proposed a way of being ‘Russian’ that was dependent on the behaviour of forces and states not under Russian control, namely the former Soviet states, and particularly Ukraine, that Russia wanted to dominate through institutions such as the Eurasian Union. The risk of failure was one factor that helped push Russia to invade Ukraine in 2022. This invasion has opened space to contest elements of the ‘official populism’ by new actors. The talk will examine some of these and what they might mean for Russia’s political development.

Lecturer Neil Robinson is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Limerick. His research focusses on Russian and post-communist politics, particularly the political economy of post-communism and post-communist state building. He is the author and editor of books on Russia and comparative politics, including most recently Contemporary Russian Politics (Polity, 2018) and (with Rory Costello, editors) Comparative European politics. Distinctive democracies, common challenges (Oxford University Press, 2020), and has published articles on Russian politics in many journals including Europe-Asia Studies, Review of International Political Economy, International Political Science Review, Russian Politics.

Moderator Marina Zoe Saoulidou is a PhD candidate in Political Science and Public Administration at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA). Her thesis focuses on the dynamics of both left- and right-wing populist parties in Europe in the context of economic crises. Marina Zoe is an IKY Scholar (State Scholarships Foundation) and was awarded an NKUA Compensatory Fellowship (teaching assistantship). She is a Junior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), and a member of the Hellenic Society of International Law and International Relations.

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ECPS Academy – Summer School 2023: “Political Crisis and Populism” by Dr Kai Arzheimer

In his lecture, Dr Kai Arzheimer disentangles the relationship between populist actors and crises. He starts by clarifying both concepts. Following that, he shows that populists often benefit from events that are not crises in a strict sense but are framed as such. In turn, populist policies may lead to genuine political crises.

Kai Arzheimer is a Professor of German Politics and Political Sociology at the University of Mainz, Germany. He has published widely on voting behaviour, particularly on voting for the radical right in Europe.

Moderator Dr Vasiliki Tsagkroni is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University. His research interests include far-right parties, populism and radicalisation, political discourse, narratives in times of crisis, political marketing and branding and policy making.

Painting portraying a Kurdish woman in traditional costume by the artist Khairy Adam.

Surveying the landscape of women’s rights: Observations from a researcher

The intertwined dynamics of the ‘patriarchal trifecta’—forced marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and so-called honor killings—create a symbiotic relationship, reinforcing each other’s harmful effects. For example, a woman compelled into a marriage against her will not only faces the trauma of forced marriage itself but also a heightened vulnerability to marital abuse due to a lack of communal and societal safeguards. Similarly, a woman subjected to FGM, whether in her youth or later in life, faces an increased likelihood of being coerced into an arranged marriage against her wishes. Her limited social agency and societal constraints make it difficult for her to resist such pressure.

By Shilan Fuad Hussain*

As researchers, especially on topics related to gender studies and cultural analysis, we must constantly decide the degree to which our investigations will inform and/or transform the world we are studying. Considering this, I have decided to investigate issues surrounding Kurdish women which are both personally and professionally important to me. 

My research, which is connected to my Marie Curie Fellowship and ongoing, looks at the status of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), or what could equally be defined as Southern Kurdistan or Bashur. The more specific focus of my exploration, connected to this issue of women in the KRI, investigates how gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV) – such as honor killings, female genital mutilation (FGM), and marital or familial violence – form an intertwined relationship. Which is not just true for the KRI, but everywhere in the world. As these specific assaults on women, seem to go hand-in-hand with places that lack institutional protections and structural barriers to lessen their occurrence.

As part of my postdoctoral fellowship research, I have begun exploring what I deem to be the ‘patriarchal trifecta’ of forced marriages, FGM, and so-called honor killings – which should more accurately be called “misogynistic murder,” but for the purposes of this topic I will utilize the commonly accepted term. It seems this trifecta forms a symbiotic relationship, in which they reinforce one another.

So, for instance, a woman who is forced into a marriage against her will, is more likely to also lack the communal or societal protections to ensure that she is then not abused by her husband, so in some of these situations there is a correlation, if not an outright causation – which is up to us as scholars to seek out.

Moreover, a woman who experiences FGM either in her youth or later years is also disproportionately likely to be forced into an arranged marriage against her will and lack the social agency or societal flexibility to refuse. Likewise, in the case of honor killings, a woman who is murdered by her father or brothers, is also more likely to both have had FGM carried out on her or be in a situation where she is likely to be placed into arranged or forced marriage. 

I believe understanding this trifecta of oppression against women globally, but in particular in the KRI regarding women, is of utmost and critical importance. My research thus far aims to do that, and by its full completion, will hopefully have achieved this goal. 

To this point, my literature review and interviews I have conducted so far paint a picture on the topic which is nuanced and contains both positive developments and work that still needs to be done. For instance, it is important when analyzing the state of women in the KRI, to understand it in the context of the region historically, and at the present time. Often times, I believe researchers, particularly in or from the West, arrive in “exotic” new environments, and expect that all of the cultural norms they are used to are universal. 

These presumptions then also usually fuel the foreign NGOs and institutions that have considerable funding but tie those resources to the quote “natives” fixing their outdated ways of living. So, while these drives to increase human rights globally can have positive gains, they can also begin to resemble the colonial ethnographies of the past, where Europeans showed up to observe and then speak for those they observed, while critiquing from a place of privilege. 

In my case, as a woman from the KRI, I am not investigating a foreign place that I do not understand, but my own community, and I am able to do so with the understanding of the many overlapping cultural complexities that inform these phenomena. For instance, my early investigations have shown the role that religion, tribe, political persuasion, and rural versus urban geography can play in these issues. In this, there seems to be a discrepancy in the prevalence of this trifecta, based on if the individuals live in the main urban centers of the KRI – Hewler (Erbil) and Slemani (Sulaymaniyah) or if they derive from a village or smaller city. 

I am also looking at the role that faith plays and if there is a difference in how religious a woman’s family is. This in turn, is connected to the role that upbringing can sometimes be fate, so I investigate how much formal education a woman has had and if she is allowed to work outside of the home. As again, there seem to be certain factors that begin to appear so frequently together, that they appear to form the words of a song. And what my research on these issues has shown me thus far is revealing. But as with any research, each ‘answer’ only begets another question. 

For example, it seems that the constraints of religious conservatism are blunted by women gaining access to formal education, but is this really a case that more open-minded families are likely to allow their daughters to get education in the first place? Or is economic class connected, as wealth seems to have a similar progressive effect, and wealthy families are also more likely to allow their daughters to seek formal education? The tangled web of causality it seems is never fully discovered and I acknowledge that no research is ever fully complete – but blocks built atop one another. 

You also cannot study women’s equality in the KRI, without looking into the governmental policies there. So, for example, there have certainly been some gains for women in the KRI based on laws passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since their de facto autonomy was established in 2003. These gains are particularly present when compared to the rest of Iraq, which has actually been backsliding on women’s rights, since Baathism ended. Which is ironic, as Saddam’s rule was particularly brutal and oppressive for Kurds and especially women, but overall, the Arab women of Iraq, have seen their personal freedoms decrease in many ways under the new less-secular post-Saddam regimes. 

In contrast, the KRG governing the KRI for instance, has made some legal gains and set in place protections on the recommendation of the UN and other world bodies, for several reasons. The most generous answer would be that it is because they are the right thing to do and the majority of men in society are ready for such progress. And the strategic or perhaps cynical answer would be that they are the prescriptions demanded from the international bodies that I mentioned earlier, who give their resources to the KRI and then uphold the place as a quote beacon of women’s rights in the Middle East. 

The geopolitical motivation for upholding the KRI in this way, also serves Western interests as it can potentially justify Western intervention in other places, who still do not guarantee their women full freedoms. But that is more an aside and would be a research study in itself. 

However, my research thus far also displays worrying trends. For instance, the other side of this beacon of equality argument, is that the KRI still features cases of women desperately self-immolating and far too many honor killings or presumed honor killings which can often be reported as suspected suicides. The methods of violence deployed against women, either from their husbands, scorned men wishing to marry them, or their fathers or brothers to protect the family’s name before the community, often are brutal methods of shooting, suffocation, or stabbing. You also have cases of suspicious burning, which are reported as suicides, but often could be murders set up to appear as such. 

What my research so far also displays to me, is that this gender-based violence, and these honor killings are based on a range of personal beliefs from the men committing the violence. For instance, I am interested in the views of men who hear of honor killings and whether they agree that it can ever be justified. Because a man might say he theoretically does not agree with a stranger being honor killed but would support such a reality if their sister carried out certain sexual acts, which they deem to be an attack on their entire family’s dignity. 

Also, the views of women on the periphery are crucial, so I look at the views of women on honor killings, and whether they become accomplices, as you can sometimes see in the case of mothers or aunts, who fail to push back against the issue, or lack the freedom and protections to ally with the victims of it. 

In the same way that historically a colonized people would always have members of the population who would collaborate with their oppressors, in the case of gender this is also a possibility. That is of course not to blame women, because those who lack structural power, will often do what they deem necessary for short term survival. 

This trifecta is also upheld by a combination of variables, including beliefs that are justified as “tradition” or “our culture”, as if denying women their full rights is in itself an act of cultural preservation. This dishonest claim can be particularly potent, because Kurds historically have had their language and cultural rights banned by repressive states, so by packaging patriarchal control as inherent to “Kurdishness,” it makes freeing these women a betrayal against an identity that many men are proud of and trying to preserve. 

Of course, there are other variables as well. Such as social class and economics. It seems that since poverty does not allow for many material comforts, people will seek out to at least own and hold on to their family “reputation” and “good name.” Again, like with the argument that it is cultural, since even men in the KRI who own relatively very little, take solace in the fact that they supposedly possess some invisible “honor.” As a result, it can be difficult to ask a rural impoverished family of men who own nothing, to give up the only thing of value that they believe they possess.

There are also philosophical questions at the heart of these issues. Such as the idea of “freedom” and importance of “love.” Both concepts can be complicated and overlapping. For instance, many men in the KRI will agree with that idea that Kurds should be free from occupation by the Iraqi State, and even get angry with the idea of the Baghdad government mistreating women. But some of those same men will then defend Kurdish wives being occupied inside of their own home, or Kurdish sisters having their dating life being policed by their brothers. This is why the idea and Kurdish slogan of Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom) in neighboring Iran and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) I believe has been so potent of a concept, is it addresses this paradox. 

And to the idea of love, my research is also interested in whether women who enter arranged or forced marriages loved their husbands at the time of marriage or love them now. Although this may seem like a basic idea, I feel it is fundamental. Because if you remove the idea of love from these marriages, then they often become either desperate economic arrangements to survive, or agreements between fathers and perhaps even mothers, to essentially barter off their daughters. In some ways, the perception or idea of freedom is also tied to the issue of FGM as well. As some of the reasoning behind FGM can be the belief of men that a woman without FGM would be overly lustful and that she cannot handle the responsibility of such freedom. 

As you can see, there are many variables to consider with such a large topic. But it is my hope that by the completion of my fellowship research, that I will have a fuller picture of how all these issues tie together in the KRI. With the hope being that there may also be some universal issues that would be applicable to the outside world as well. Because women cannot have life and freedom – jiyan and azadi – if they are preventing from controlling their own bodies or romantic lives.


(*) Dr Shilan Fuad Hussain is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow and a consultant on gender related issues and society. Previously, she was a Visiting Fellow at the Washington Kurdish Institute and a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Alongside her research in Middle Eastern and Kurdish Studies, she is an interdisciplinary academic and works on a variety of topics such as cultural production, gender-related issues and society, gender empowerment. Her current work sits at the intersection of sociology and cultural analysis, and its symbiotic relevance to modern society.

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Irina von Wiese replaces Sir Watson as the honorary president of ECPS

Former MEP Irina von Wiese replaces Sir Graham Watson as the honorary president of ECPS. Sir Watson is stepping down after almost 4 years as president.

Sir Graham Watson is stepping down as the honorary president of ECPS to start a new career as an academician in Canada. Irina von Wiese who served as a British MEP in the European Parliament before the Brexit will replace Sir Watson. Watson who has been the founding honorary president of ECPS since 2020 said ECPS has grown to become a well-rooted and respected institution on the European scene. ‘Never in living memory has its work been more needed… Millennial citizens inherit a world in which skies have darkened and the storm clouds swirl. Thus, the work of ECPS is lent extra urgency and importance,’ said Sir Watson. Sir Watson will continue to support ECPS as a member of the Advisory Board.

We are, as ECPS, grateful to Sir Watson for all the work he has done for our think-tank and happy to welcome Irina von Wiese as our new president. Von Wiese who is involved in local politics in Britain and also teaching in France will certainly contribute a lot to the work of ECPS. “It is a great honor to be appointed Honorary President of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). Stepping into Sir Graham Watson’s shoes is not easy, and I owe him a huge Thank You for all his work as ECPS Honorary President during the past years,” said von Wiese. She underlined that the work of ECPS was more relevant than ever adding that national populist leaders rule not just in far flung countries without democratic tradition, but they have risen to power in the heart of Europe, and on its periphery, from Hungary to Turkey, Belarus, and Russia. “From Sweden to France, there is no European country that has been immune from the influence of national populist parties,” said she. 

Statement by Sir Graham Watson, Former Honorary President of ECPS

It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have been able to serve the European Center for Populism Studies as its first Honorary President.

I am pleased to say that during my time in office – thanks largely to the work of the dedicated founders and staff of the Center – the ECPS has grown to become a well-rooted and widely respected institution on the European scene. 

Never in living memory has its work been more needed. The continued erosion of democracy and the rule of law in Europe and beyond is of growing concern to those who seek to live in freedom and in peace. Millennial citizens inherit a world in which skies have darkened and the storm clouds swirl. Thus, the work of the European Center for Populism Studies is lent extra urgency and importance.

As I gravitate from the world of active politics to that of academia, I am increasingly conscious of the importance of fact-based research and the fight against ‘fake news.’ It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that humankind risks entering a new dark age. Thus, I impress upon my successors the need to redouble their efforts. If we can muster the courage and the determination – the guts and the grit – we may yet ensure that the bloody wars and dictatorships of the 20th century are succeeded by a 21st century in which the good will, compassion and common humanity of concerned citizens can be harnessed to the creation of a more just, democratic, and happier global demos.

I am pleased that you have chosen a person of the caliber of Irina von Wiese to succeed me. I am sure that together you will go on to achieve even greater impact.

Statement by Irina von Wiese, Honorary President of ECPS

It is a great honour to be appointed Honorary President of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). Stepping into Sir Graham Watson’s shoes is not easy, and I owe him a huge Thank You for all his work as ECPS Honorary President during the past years, as well as his personal friendship and support during my time at the European Parliament. Graham will continue to advise the ECPS and provide his deep well of experience and wisdom to the Center.

Sadly, the work of the ECPS today is more relevant than ever. National populist leaders rule not just in far flung countries without democratic tradition: they have risen to power in the heart of Europe, and on its periphery, from Hungary to Turkey, Belarus, and Russia. Many of these leaders emerged from democratic elections and continue to use the semblance of democracy as legitimization for their autocratic regimes. 

Where populists haven’t quite grasped power, they have put noticeable pressure on governments. From Sweden to France, there is no European country that has been immune from the influence of national populist parties. 

In 2023, the ground is fertile for populists: perceived or real socio-economic decline, political polarization and the omnipresence of increasingly sophisticated disinformation combine to instill a sense of disenfranchisement. Migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT people, and vaguely defined ‘metropolitan elites’ serve as the usual scapegoats in this quest for power. In my own country, the United Kingdom, the divisive Brexit referendum exacerbated these threats. 

The war of aggression unleashed by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine has brought into focus where this slippery slope can lead. On paper, Putin was elected, but in absence of resilient democratic structures, his stronghold over the Russian people allows him to rule as a dictator. As happens so often, journalists became the first victims of his quest to dismantle democracy. Once the free press was shut down, they coast was clear to eradicate any opposition and brainwash the population through a steady stream of disinformation. Without paving the way in his own country, Putin would not have been able to start and sustain his war against Ukraine.

It is time to fight back.

The ECPS, based in the heart of Europe, has gathered a group of world experts to advise policymakers, support human rights defenders, inform the public and teach young people about the threats of populism around the globe. It is unique in its role building a bridge between academia and policy, theory and practice. To fight toxic populism, we need to reach people, and give them access to the most efficient antidote: knowledge.

In this crucial time for the future of Europe, it is more important than ever to understand the roots and evolution of populism. The educational and analytical work undertaken by the ECPS is an invaluable resource. It is my privilege as Honorary President of the Center to support and enable this work going forward. 

An army of Hindu Sanyasis is geared up for battle to protect their dharma at any cost. Illustration: Young Moves Media (Shutterstock).

Mapping Global Populism — Panel #4: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India

Date/Time: Thursday, August 31, 2023 — 10:00-12:00 (CET)

 

This panel is jointly organised by The European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI)  and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide.

 

Click here to register!

 

Moderator 

Dr Priya Chacko (Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia).

Speakers

“Politics, ethics, and emotions in ‘New India’,” by Dr Ajay Gudavarthy (Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).

“Ram Rajya 2.0: How nostalgia aids the populist politics of neo-colonial Hindutva futurism,” by Maggie Paul (PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia).

“Constitutional roots of judicial populism in India,” by Dr Anuj Bhuwania (Professor at the Jindal Global Law School in India & currently Senior Visiting Fellow at the SCRIPTS ‘Cluster of Excellence’ at Freie University Berlin).

“India’s refugee policy towards Rohingya refugees: An intersectional approach to populism,” by Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta (Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of New South Wales, Sydney) and Dr Shweta Singh (Associate Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi, India).

 

Click here to register!

 

 

Brief Biographies and Abstracts

Dr Priya Chacko is Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. Her current research includes authoritarian populism, economic nationalism, and foreign policy, with a focus on India and diaspora politics, racial capitalism and foreign policy, with a focus on Australia. 

Politics, ethics, and emotions in ‘New India

Bio: Dr Ajay Gudavarthy is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is a regular contributor to leading news dailies in India that include The Hindu, The Indian express, The Telegraph, The Wire, The Outlook and Newsclick. He has appeared on and shared his views with various international print media and news channels including Channel News Asia (Singapore), Al Jajeera, The Conversation, South China Morning Post, BBC, The Independent and The Time Magazine, Friday Times, Khaleej times, The Dawn, Arab News, The Diplomat, among others.

Ram Rajya 2.0: How nostalgia aids the populist politics of neo-colonial Hindutva futurism

Abstract: This presentation to argue that authoritarian populist politics in India utilizes populist discursive and mobilizing strategies to advance a ‘Hindutva futurism’ built on the neoliberal economics of market prosperity and a civilizationalist ideology which is preoccupied with internal disunity, external threats, and celebrating and recovering a lost civilizational glory. The symbolism of Hindutva futurism has been epitomized by an archetypal past-cum-future imaginary that has had many lives in India, Ram Rajya (Ram’s kingdom) – the utopian rule of an upper-caste Hindu God Ram in the epic Ramayana characterized by peace and prosperity. Through an exploration of the campaign to build a Ram temple on the site of a demolished mosque and Ram-themed films, the presentation will show that the invocation of Ram and Ram Rajya produces an affective economy of nostalgia. This utilizes the language of affective injury and restorative justice to invoke emotions related to resentment and aspiration to cultivate a populist cleavage between a persecuted Hindu people and privileged liberal-left ‘elites’ and religious minorities which justifies the neocolonial domination of the latter by the former.

Bios: Dr Priya Chackois Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. Her current research includes authoritarian populism, economic nationalism, and foreign policy, with a focus on India and diaspora politics, racial capitalism and foreign policy, with a focus on Australia. 

Maggie Paul is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Her research interests include the contestations of citizenship in the South Asian context, politics at the urban margins as well as decolonial, post-development and pluriversal theory (and practice). Her current research focuses on how the colonial, and nationalist, construction of the “infiltrator” figure from Bangladesh affects contemporary citizenship in India, rendering it contingent

Constitutional roots of judicial populism in India

Bio: Anuj Bhuwania is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the SCRIPTS ‘Cluster of Excellence’ at Freie University Berlin. He is a Professor at the Jindal Global Law School in India. He has previously held visiting positions at the University of Cambridge, University of Göttingen, Jawaharlal Nehru University and at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. He is the author of ‘Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India’ (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Email address: anujbhuwania@gmail.com

India’s refugee policy towards Rohingya refugees: An intersectional approach to populism

Abstract: Contemporary investigations into links between populism and foreign policy overwhelmingly favor an ideational approach to populism, are largely aimed at developing universally applicable insights or rules and treat foreign policy as a set of discrete domains for action. Such studies are constrained in their ability to generate complex, nuanced and empirically rich understandings of how domestic populist politics link to shifts in policy preferences and outcomes in the name of ‘foreign policy.’ In this study, we develop an intersectional analytical approach to investigating the links between populism and foreign policy, through a case study of India’s shifting refugee policy towards Rohingyas under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Modi government. We conceptualize refugee policy as foreign policy and interrogate the categories of ‘the people’ and ‘other’ not as monolithic, but as intersectionally constituted along varying discursive identity constellations, and investigate them in the context of regional political dynamics. In these ways, we expand the scope of populist foreign policy analysis, and highlight how foreign policies of populist governments cannot be understood without insights into the complex intersectional ways in which the ‘people’ and the ‘other’ are co-constituted and reinforced in and through ‘foreign policy.’

Bios: Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta is a Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney. Her research areas include critical security studies, decolonial feminist approaches, non-traditional security issues, strategic narratives, South Asian security, and Indian foreign policy. She is the author of Understanding Security Practices in South Asia: Securitization Theory and the role of non-state actors (Abingdon: Routledge 2012) and Food Security in Asia: Challenges, Policies and Implications

Dr Shweta Singh is Associate Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University (New Delhi, India). She is co-editor (with Tiina Vaittinen and Catia Confortini) of the Edinburgh University Press series titled Edinburg Feminist Studies on Peace, Justice and Violence. Her recent publications include the special issue (co-edited with Ingrid Nyoborg, and Gunhild Hoogensen Gjorv), ‘Re-thinking Violence, Everyday and (In) Security: Feminist/Intersectional Interventions,’ Journal of Human Security (2022) and ‘Towards an intersectional approach to populism: comparative perspectives from Finland and India’ (with Elise Feron), Contemporary Politics (2021). She has served as the UN Women International Expert on Populism, Nationalism, and Gender (Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific).

 

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Giorgia Meloni, Italy's prime minister, reacts during a handover ceremony at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy on October 23, 2022. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

‘Foreigners’ in Radical Right Populism: Enemies or Friends?

Populist radical right parties are known to be nativist, even xenophobic, opposing foreigners and using hostile rhetoric against them. Even though “foreigners” are still the subject that populists target, their position, whether as “enemies” or “friends” in populist discourse, depends on some variables. Firstly, the position of a populist radical right party plays a vital role in determining the role of foreigners. In the opposition, they can risk being against everyone and everything, like the EU, United Nations, or human rights itself. Nevertheless, when they come into office, they need money and resources to rule correctly, which means they must balance their discourse and sometimes soften it.

By Tuna Tasir*

Europe has been highly affected by the global rise of populism (Balfour, 2017; Lazar, 2021; Jones, 2017; Crum and Oleart, 2023); especially radical right populism. In some countries, like Italy, radical right populists have won power; in others, like France, they are growing their influence. Besides European politics, scholarly debates and media are haunted by populism. Many reasons why populism is so successful have been revealed. The pragmatic flexibility of populists is crucial because it allows them to transform their discourses, policies, and targets. Populists adapt quickly to society’s changing needs (real and perceived), based on the country and its elites, which complicates the paths taken to respond to populism.

The Nature of Populism

Normative explanations cannot describe populism because it has no fixed shape with regular programs or principles. As some have argued, populism is not a full ideology like liberalism or socialism but rather is a thin-centered ideology that can be combined with other ‘thicker’ ideologies easily (Abromeit, 2017: 178; Çamurcuoğlu, 2019: 285; Canovan, 1999: 4; Mudde, 2004: 543; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012: 168). When associated with the radical right, populism is also associated with nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde, 2007: 22). Specifically, nativism is known to set the basis for xenophobia to emerge and spread (Yıldırım, 2017: 57). However, is associating with nativism, even xenophobia, a normative feature of populism or does it adapt over time or with the conditions of a specific country?

Populists often construct the alienated others, including foreigners, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, as scapegoats. The targeted language of populist discourse depends on various determinants like the majority and minority ethnicity or religion, the position of the populist party being either the ruling party or in opposition, and the opportunities that emerge in the country. Although left-wing and right-wing variants differ in their creation and treatment of ‘others,’ for the sake of brevity, this piece will focus solely on right-wing populism and its discursive and divisive construction of “foreigners.”

Rhetoric about “the foreigners” varies among the right-wing parties. Considering their nativist, even xenophobic politics, radical right populism might be assumed to always use hostile discourse towards foreigners. In contrast, it can vary in different contexts. In this essay, I will analyze the political rhetoric of the right-wing parties about “foreigners” by examining the cases of Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey.   

Different Usages of Foreigners in Radical Right Populism

The usage of ‘foreigners’ in populist rhetoric is observed to differ according to the position of a populist party- whether in opposition or office. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, promised to prevent immigrants from coming by sea during her election campaign (Giuffrida, 2022). After coming to power, she enacted a code that limits humanitarian non-governmental organizations from running rescue operations in the Mediterranean (The Maritime Executive, 2023). Yet, her populist attitude against foreigners has changed slightly, especially after being criticized following a shipwreck in which at least 86 immigrants died near the coasts of Calabria in Italy in February (AFP, 2023). Recently, Italy changed its attitude towards immigration and gave the green light to sign a new Migration and Asylum Pact proposed by the European Union (EU). Meloni decided to ease her populist attitude against immigrants for now (Sorgi and Barigazzi, 2023). While some assert that Italy gained some concessions from the EU (Sorgi and Barigazzi, 2023), Marine Le Pen, the leader of a populist radical right party in France, claimed that Meloni’s seemingly more inclusive attitude results from the recovery plan offered by the EU (Basso, 2023). No matter which account is accurate, the situation demonstrates that populist radical right attitudes towards foreigners can change after coming into office and over time.

Another element that defines pragmatic changes in the rhetoric about others by the right-wing parties regards the politics of ethnicity. Ethnicity is central in the rhetoric of radical right populists. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainians had to move to European countries. Having radical right populists in office, countries such as Poland and Hungary softened their exclusionary rhetoric and welcomed Ukrainian refugees (Palotai and Veres, 2022). It can be argued that in this case, it is situational and not related to ethnicity. It can also be claimed that these governments oppose immigrants, not refugees or asylum seekers. However, while these countries showed their hospitality to Ukrainian refugees, they were not as welcoming towards refugees of war and conflict from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (Beauchamp, 2015; Vadhanavisala, 2020; Cienski, 2017; Witte, 2022; Ghadakpour, 2022). This double standard is not unique to radical right populists – examples can be located throughout European politics. Nonetheless, this double standard by the radical right populists is ironic when considering their typically nativist, even xenophobic, politics (Venturi and Vallianatou, 2022; Reilly and Flynn, 2022).

“Foreigners” do not always have to be enemies in the populist discourse. Religion and opportunistic considerations play a crucial role in shaping rhetoric about foreigners. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, embraced numerous Syrians after the Arab Spring. Besides, the EU is committed to aid 10 billion Euro to Turkey for Syrians (European Union “EU Support to Refugees in Türkiye”). Therefore, economic considerations about the ongoing refugee crisis between the EU and neighboring states feed into creating pragmatic approaches toward refugees as foreigners in a populist sense. The same pragmatism can be seen in Meloni’s attitude towards immigrants. One of the reasons for embracing Syrians might be related to the financial aid from the EU, just as Meloni’s green light to the new Migrants and Asylum Seekers Pact might be associated with the post-covid recovery funds.

Embracing Syrians seems to be associated with discursive opportunities and benefits as well. In this way, Erdogan claims he cares for Syrians (Presidency of the Republic of Türkiye, 2016), who are Muslims, as most Turkish people are. Syrians are a valuable subject to earn the support of religious and conservative identities. Additionally, Erdogan used Syrians to threaten the West to let them flow into Europe (Beaumont and Smith, 2019) and rhetorically to accuse the West of causing the tragedy not only in the Middle East but in the Aegean and Mediterranean as well (Alarabiya News, 2015; Hacaoglu and Nikas, 2021; Rankin, 2020). Although most Turkish people reported wanting Syrians to return to Syria, Erdogan used Arab and Syrian immigrants given citizenship as voters in the 2023 Turkish General Elections. Although these votes may not be enough to change the results, what will happen in the next elections when the number of Syrians gaining citizenship increases over the years? 

Conclusion

Populist radical right parties are known to be nativist, even xenophobic, opposing foreigners and using hostile rhetoric against them. Even though foreigners are still the subject that populists target, their position, whether as enemies or friends in populist discourse, depends on some variables. Firstly, the position of a populist radical right party plays a vital role in determining the role of foreigners. In the opposition, they can risk being against everyone and everything, like the EU, United Nations, or human rights itself. Nevertheless, when they come into office, they need money and resources to rule correctly, which means they must balance their discourse and sometimes soften it (Taşır, 2023). 

Moreover, the ethnicity of foreigners might change the attitudes of populist radical right parties. Two arguments can explain this change: First, some populist parties might feel close to foreigners because they share ethnic and geographic past. Second, some foreigners might be prioritized due to their ethnicity. The cases of Hungary and Poland are likely to be explained by both arguments. Furthermore, a discursive benefit of this attitude is to create antagonistic division among foreigners by separating them into “good” and “evil.” They accept foreigners according to the arguments above, in this way, can claim that they are not literally against foreigners. In the case study of Hungary and Poland, Ukrainians are considered as good and deserving of protection, while “others” are seen as evils who might corrupt the countries if they get accepted.

Finally, religion and opportunities can transform foreigners from enemies to friends in populist rhetoric. In a society that identifies as conservative and religious, it is an excellent opportunity to welcome foreigners from the same religion as natives. In this way, a message can be directed to ‘the people’ that says: I care about what you care about. Furthermore, it is a different way to make an antagonistic division and mobilize people around that. In our case, the “pure us” who embrace Syrians versus the “corrupt them” referring to the West creates a greater common enemy by using the new foreigners in the country and positioning them against a bigger alienated other. Besides, foreigners might be used as a bargaining tool, as seen in the case of allowing a large intake of Syrians into Europe.

Consequently, thanks to their flexibility, the populist radical right seems to continue to appeal to people (Mudde, 2004: 563; Moffitt, 2016: 135). Although “foreigners” will be the main topic in the future because of wars, crisis, climate change, especially with the increase of “climate refugees” (Taşır, 2023), and poor living conditions, it is hardly easy to say that they were always positioned as enemies in the rhetoric of the radical right populism. The context might change the populist undertones, including a harsher or softer discourse yet there is always an enemy. That is why, to cope with radical right populism, it is vital to produce solutions according to the context.

More questions remain to be addressed: What can prevent the disintegration of civil society under the rule of a populist regime that uses hate speech or softer and seemingly inclusive language yet still targets and creates an enemy? What can the international community do in support of civil rights in times of political targeting of specific groups within or beyond the borders of a country? What have we learned or did not learn from history, and how can we build a safer society for the most vulnerable? What can the youth and the young professionals do in times of crisis to support EU values, liberal democracy, and civil rights? These questions beget collective thinking and sharing the pain of the most vulnerable internationally and equally


 

(*) Tuna Tasir (Taşır) is currently a writer at Institute for a Greater Europe and a senior undergraduate student and researcher in Political Sciences and Public Administration. His papers have been published in several think tanks. Tuna is interested in populism and the far-right, Euroscepticism, political sociology, and comparative politics. Besides, he has been conducting his research project on “the level of Euroscepticism of would-be bureaucrats in Turkey” granted by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. 

Tuna participated in national and international projects, including European Solidarity Corps projects funded by the European Union. Furthermore, he is one of the owners of a project conducted in association with Izmir Metropolitan Municipality called “Eco Solutions Fest,” which aims to raise awareness of climate change and its impacts among people, especially youth. He worked as a peer reviewer for EPR 2023, run by EST Think Tank, and as an intern at “Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Research,” “Center for Diplomatic Affairs and Political Studies,” and “Bayraklı District Governorate.”  From September 2023 to January 2024, he will study at Université Libre de Bruxelles as Erasmus Student Exchange Program. 


 

References

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Abromeit, J. (2017). “A Critical Review of Recent Literature on Populism.” Politics and Governance 5, no.: 177-186.https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v5i4.1146.

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Balfour, R. (2017). “The (Resistable) Rise of Populism in Europe and its Impact on European and International Cooperation.” European Institute of the Mediterraneanhttps://www.iemed.org/publication/the-resistable-rise-of-populism-in-europe-and-its-impact-on-european-and-international-cooperation/

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Canovan, M. (1999). “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy.” Political Studies. 47, no. 1: 2–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.00184

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Crum, B. & Oleart, A. (2023). “Populist parties and democratic resilience in Europe.” The London Schools of Economics and Political Science. March 2, 2023. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2023/03/02/populist-parties-and-democratic-resilience-in-europe/

Çamurcuoğlu, G. (2019). “Çoğunlukçu Demokrasiye Yöneliş Olarak Popülizm.” İnönü Üniversitesi Hukuk Fakültesi Dergisi 10, no.1: 277–291. https://doi.org/10.21492/inuhfd.559362.

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Reilly, R. & Flynn, M. (2022). “THE UKRAINE CRISIS Double Standards: Has Europe’s Response to Refugees Changed?” Reliefweb (Global Detention Project). March 2, 2022. https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/ukraine-crisis-double-standards-has-europe-s-response-refugees-changed

Sorgi, G. & Barigazzi, J. (2023). “EU countries agree to major migration deal.” POLITICO. June 8, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-giorgia-meloni-assylum-seekers-eu-holds-migration-deal-hostage/

Taşır, T. (2023). “The Future of Europe and the European Union in the Context of Populism and Euroscepticism.” Institute for a Greater Europe. May 25, 2023. https://institutegreatereurope.com/elementor-3601/

Taşır, T. (2023). “Populist Performance in Office Against Foreigners: The Case of Italy.” Institute for a Greater Europe. May 1, 2023. https://institutegreatereurope.com/populist-performance-in-office-against-foreigners-the-case-of-italy/.

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Venturi, E. & Vallianatou, I. A. (2022). “Ukraine exposes Europe’s double standards for refugees.” Chatham House. March 30, 2022. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/03/ukraine-exposes-europes-double-standards-refugees

Yildirim, Y. (2017). “The Right-Populism and the Rising of Far-Right in Europe in the Context of the Crisis of Liberal Democracy.” Amme İdaresi Dergisi 50, no. 2: 51-72. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318909719_Liberal_Demokrasinin_Krizi_Baglaminda_Avrupa%27da_Sag-Populizm_ve_Yukselen_Asiri-Sag_The_Right-Populism_and_the_Rising_of_Far-Right_in_Europe_in_the_Context_of_the_Crisis_of_Liberal_Democracy

Witte, D. M. (2022). “Ukrainian refugees face a more accommodating Europe, says Stanford scholar.” Stanford News. March 24, 2022. https://news.stanford.edu/2022/03/24/ukrainian-refugees-face-accommodating-europe-says-stanford-scholar/

Photo: Shutterstock.

Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan

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Ahmed, Zahid Shahab; Yilmaz, Ihsan; Akbarzadeh, Shahram & Bashirov, Galib. (2023). “Digital Authoritarianism and Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 20, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0042

 

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

 

By Zahid Shahab Ahmed*,  Ihsan Yilmaz, Shahram Akbarzadeh** and Galib Bashirov***

Executive Summary

With the Pakistani government implementing rules and regulations to control the online sphere, particularly through the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), digital authoritarianism has emerged as a significant governance tool in the country. Concerns have been raised regarding potential abuses stemming from the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the extensive monitoring authority granted to intelligence services. However, despite the rise of digital authoritarianism, a countervailing force exists. Pakistan’s judiciary has displayed resistance, and the nation boasts a robust civil society that includes human rights organizations focusing on digital rights. These groups express concerns regarding data security, privacy regulations, and the internet access of marginalized communities. This study aims to examine the dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and evaluate the role of civil society organizations in promoting and protecting digital rights.

Initially, communications in Pakistan were governed by colonial-era legislation, such as the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act of 1996 and the Telegraph Act of 1885. The Fair Trial Act of 2013 enabled the extensive collection of evidence through monitoring. These regulations, coupled with the absence of a comprehensive digital governance bill, have facilitated continuous online surveillance. Pakistan has witnessed remarkable growth in internet penetration, with approximately one-third of the population now having internet access.

In 2016, Pakistan introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to address internet governance. The act imposes severe penalties for various offences, including hacking, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. However, concerns have been raised regarding issues such as misuse, limitations on expressive rights, and privacy violations. PECA grants increased authority to institutions like the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance and prosecution. The PTA possesses extensive powers to block and remove content, often justifying these actions based on the grounds of promoting vulgarity or corrupting the youth. Social media companies are also required to comply with specific regulations.

Pakistan benefits from a strong network of civil society organizations that actively collaborate with international counterparts to raise awareness about digital rights. Within Pakistan, several prominent organizations are dedicated to advocating for digital rights, internet freedom, privacy, and digital literacy.

The Digital Rights Foundation is a notable non-profit organization that focuses on promoting digital rights and addressing issues such as online harassment, data security, freedom of speech, and women’s digital rights. They conduct research, provide legal support, and deliver training and awareness programs on digital security.

Bolo Bhi is another civil society organization committed to internet freedom, digital security, and open access to information. Alongside policy advocacy, research, and digital literacy initiatives, they raise public awareness about internet censorship, surveillance, and privacy concerns.

Media Matters for Democracy is a group that works on freedom of expression, digital rights, and media development in Pakistan. Through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building initiatives, they strive to enhance online civic spaces, promote digital literacy, and safeguard digital rights.

The Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan, a research project, offers policy recommendations on issues such as data privacy, monitoring, and censorship. They track and analyse internet governance challenges in Pakistan.

Privacy International, a global organization, advocates for privacy rights and opposes intrusive monitoring practices, including in Pakistan.

These civil society organizations play crucial roles in promoting and safeguarding digital rights in Pakistan, both through local advocacy efforts and international collaborations. These organizations actively engage in research, lobbying, and capacity-building initiatives to interact with politicians, raise public awareness, and protect digital rights in Pakistan. They also address the issue of inadequate internet access, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Their initiatives serve as a reminder of the significance of inclusive policies, digital literacy programs, bridging the digital divide, and ensuring that technological advancements are guided by human rights principles.

By conducting research, these organizations generate valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities related to digital rights in Pakistan. They utilize this research to advocate for policies that protect individuals’ online freedoms and privacy. Through lobbying efforts, they aim to influence policymakers and lawmakers, urging them to enact laws and regulations that promote digital rights and address concerns regarding internet access, privacy, and surveillance. Capacity-building initiatives undertaken by these organizations involve educating individuals and communities about digital rights, empowering them to understand their rights and navigate the online world safely. These efforts are particularly vital in rural and underserved areas, where access to information and digital literacy may be limited. The organizations’ commitment to addressing the digital divide highlights the importance of ensuring equal and affordable internet access for all citizens, regardless of their geographical location or socioeconomic status. Furthermore, these organizations emphasize the need for human rights principles to underpin technological advancements. They advocate for a responsible and ethical approach to digital development, wherein individual privacy, freedom of expression, and other fundamental rights are respected and protected.

Policy Implications

– The ambiguous definitions of cybercrime within the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) give rise to concerns regarding potential abuses and violations of privacy. To address these issues and ensure the protection of individual rights, it is imperative for the government to undertake a thorough review and modification of the Act. This review should involve establishing precise definitions for cybercrimes and implementing stringent regulations governing the collection, storage, and utilization of personal data. Additionally, robust data protection laws need to be put in place to safeguard the privacy of individuals.

– Given the wide-ranging monitoring authority granted to intelligence services under PECA, there is a pressing need for stronger supervision and accountability mechanisms. To prevent the potential abuse of surveillance powers and protect individual rights, it is crucial to establish independent authorities tasked with overseeing and regulating the operations of intelligence services. Transparency and accountability should be prioritized through regular audits and reporting procedures, ensuring that the actions of these services align with legal and ethical standards. By implementing robust oversight measures, we can safeguard against potential abuses and maintain the balance between security concerns and individual privacy rights.

– The resilience displayed by the judiciary in Pakistan against digital authoritarianism is commendable. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of enhancing judicial independence and equipping courts with the necessary tools to effectively address matters related to digital rights. To enhance the judiciary’s understanding of the complexities involved, it is crucial to implement judicial training programs focused on technology and digital issues. These training initiatives can provide judges with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the intricacies of digital matters and make informed decisions. By bolstering judicial comprehension in this field, the judiciary’s ability to uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan can be strengthened.

– The government should prioritize initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide and improving internet access, especially in rural and underserved areas. This requires making substantial investments in infrastructure development, expanding broadband availability, and reducing internet service costs. Additionally, implementing digital literacy programs is crucial to equip individuals with the necessary skills to navigate the digital realm securely and effectively. By addressing these issues, the government can empower marginalized communities, bridge the digital gap, and create equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the digital age.

– Civil society groups in Pakistan are at the forefront of promoting digital rights. Recognizing their expertise and advocacy efforts, the government should actively engage with these organizations and seek their advice and insights in formulating rules and regulations. Collaborating with civil society groups allows for a comprehensive and inclusive approach to addressing the diverse issues and viewpoints related to digital rights. By fostering meaningful dialogue and incorporating the perspectives of various stakeholders, the government can develop more effective policies that uphold and protect digital rights in Pakistan.

– Extensive public awareness campaigns are essential to educate the public about their digital rights, emphasizing the importance of online privacy and security. These awareness efforts should be inclusive, targeting various social groups, with a particular focus on marginalized communities. The aim is to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to protect their personal information online, recognize potential risks, and take appropriate legal action if their rights are violated. By empowering people with this information, we can foster a safer and more informed digital environment, ensuring that individuals are aware of their rights and can actively safeguard their online privacy and security.

– Pakistan should actively engage in international forums and collaborate with other nations to establish best practices and standards in addressing digital rights issues, recognizing the global nature of these challenges. By participating in these forums, Pakistan can benefit from shared knowledge and experiences, leading to more effective approaches in protecting digital rights. Collaborating with organizations like Privacy International can be instrumental in leveraging their expertise and assistance to strengthen privacy rights and oppose intrusive surveillance practices. By working together on an international scale, Pakistan can contribute to the development of robust frameworks for digital rights protection and ensure that privacy and individual freedoms are upheld in the digital realm.


 

Introduction

Policemen stand guard to avoid any untoward incident at Kati Pahari road as security has been tightened in city due to violence on July 06, 2011 in Karachi. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Pakistan’s political landscape has been profoundly shaped by its historical trajectory, which has been marred by violence, religious divisions, and an intricate struggle for identity. The country has faced challenges in establishing a stable democracy, with periods of military dictatorship undermining democratic processes. Governance issues, such as limited freedom of the press, restricted right to protest, and interference from the military establishment, have cast a shadow on Pakistan’s democratic credentials. Furthermore, the rise of digital authoritarianism has added a new dimension to the country’s political landscape.

To govern the digital sphere, the government has implemented laws and regulations, with the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) serving as foundational legislation. However, concerns arise from the ambiguous definitions of cybercrime in PECA, and the extensive surveillance powers granted to civil and military intelligence agencies, raising the potential for abuse of power. The state has invested in technological capabilities for online monitoring, including web monitoring systems and social media monitoring cells. This digital surveillance infrastructure, combined with the expanded role of state institutions, reinforces the government’s control over cyberspace and its citizens’ privacy.

While digital authoritarianism is on the rise, characterized by increased surveillance, internet shutdowns, and restrictions on dissent, there exists a counterbalancing force. Pakistan’s judiciary has demonstrated resistance to encroachments on digital rights, and a robust civil society, including human rights organizations focusing on digital rights, actively advocates for the protection of digital rights in the country. These organizations voice concerns regarding data protection and privacy laws, as well as advocating for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized populations in regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

This report aims to delve into the various dynamics of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan and examine the role of civil society organizations in promoting and safeguarding digital rights within the country.

Pakistan is a country that has seen violence and brutality since its formation in 1947. Following World War II, the British Raj withdrew from the Indian Subcontinent, creating independent states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, leading to millions of people migrating across the newly created borders between India and Pakistan. The Great Partition became the largest mass migration event of the twentieth century, but it was also marred by violent hate crimes based on faith, resulting in mass murder, mob lynching, looting, and rape of citizens on both sides of the borders (Talbot, 2009; Menon, 2012; Khan, 2017).

In addition to its traumatic inception, Pakistan has constantly struggled with its identity as a young nation-state. Despite being a ‘Muslim’ state, Pakistan at the time of its creation hosted a 23 percent population of non-Muslims, which has dwindled to 4 percent at present, and newly independent India did and still houses millions of Muslims (Mehfooz, 2021). Adding to this, the 1971 civil war led to the separation of East Pakistan from the union resulting in the creation of Bangladesh (Hossain, 2021, 2018). This breakdown of the idea of ‘a land for Muslims’ since its formation has been in jeopardy. Another interesting part is that while Pakistan was championed as a homeland for Muslims, legally it remains a highly colonial-inspired state in terms of its laws and constitution (Yilmaz, 2016). While it does use Sharia’s guiding principles to form laws, it remains democratic and not purely ‘Islamic’ in its legal and governance aspects (Yilmaz, 2016). This for many hard-line clerics and right-wing groups has added to the identity crises. The exclusive emphasis during its creation on the idea of a ‘land for Muslims’ and the later paradoxes has taken the shape of an ontological crisis for the country. Its foundation of a ‘Muslim land for Muslims’ over the year has been jolted. This existentialist crisis has led to various forms of political and social turmoil in the country for the last seven decades.  

While Pakistan remains a democracy, its track record is tarnished by several military authoritarian regimes. The country has spent decades under four different military dictatorships, one of which took place during 1969-1971, under General Yahya Khan, when Pakistan was facing a civil war in East Pakistan (Sheikh and Ahmed, 2020). The latest military rule was that of General Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008. While the 2008 general elections have paved the wave for a successive period of democracy the country’s ranking on democratic measures and indexes has remained murky (see Table 1). Various issues such as the lack of freedom of the press, barring the right to protest, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and gag order on media are a few of the issues apart from poor governance. The military referred to as “the establishment” regularly interferes with democratic processes in the country (Shafqat, 2019). Due to its closeness to the military establishment, Imran Khan’s government during 2018-2022 was called a hybrid regime and similar is the case now under the government-led Pakistan Democratic Movement.  

Table 1 Overview of Democracy in Pakistan
The Freedom House (2023)  Overall score 37/100 Political Rights 15/40
Civil Liberties 22/60
Democracy Index (2022) Overall score 4.13/10 Electoral process and pluralism 5.67/10
Functioning of government 5/10
Political participation 2.78/10
Political culture 2.5/10
Civil liberties 4.71/10
Human Freedom Index (2022) Overall rank 146 out of 165 countries  Personal freedom 5.2/10
Human freedom 5.44/10
Economic freedom 6.03/10
Reporters Without Borders
World Press Freedom Index (2023)
Rank 150 out of 180 countriesScore is 39.95 Political indicator rank 139/180
Economic indicator 136/180
Legislative indicator 130/180
Social indicator 140/180
Security indicator 176/180

Data sources: (FH 2023; RWB 2023; FI 2022; Economist 2022)

In addition to these troubles, the country has been facing waves of home-grown terrorism and mushroom growth in far-right vigilantism from right-wing Islamist groups since the early 2000s. Despite successive military operations and some ‘peace building’ efforts the year 2023 marks the return of radical Islamists (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other armed groups) in various areas of the country which results in numerous violent incidents such as conflicts with security forces or targeting civilians by suicide bombing (Jadoon, 2021). Similarly, radical Islamic groups, in both urban and rural areas have spread a culture of vigilantism or ‘mob justice’ where vandalism, physical attacks on people and at times mob lynching have become common practice to show discontent over blasphemous comments by international leaders, local politicians and many times average citizens accused of blasphemy (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022). In addition, targeting non-Muslims and sectarian minorities in the name of ‘protection of Islam’ these violent mobs has resulted in deaths, vandalism of worship places and loss of property of the victim’s (Yilmaz and Shakil, 2022).     

The overview of the country’s current political situation is quite grim. During this chaos surrounding poor governance, a tradition of authoritarianism, military interference, radicalization and disregard of human rights, the country has become a fertile ground for digital authoritarianism as well. Since the late 2000s and through the 2010s the state has replicated its oppressive tactics on the online realm as well. The last section of this report presents the history and current situation of digital authoritarianism.  

Digital Authoritarianism in Pakistan

Finger Print Biometric Scanning Identification System. Photo: Natanael Ginting.

The way modern humans interact with information has been fundamentally transformed by the Internet. Nowadays, anyone with a secure connection to the World Wide Web has access to a wealth of information that is freely and readily available. However, this easy access to information has led to an increasing demand for internet governance (Kurbalija, 2016), which refers to the creation and management of rules, policies, and practices in the digital realm. How internet governance is carried out varies from country to country. For example, in India, internet blackouts are commonly employed to suppress protests against the government, thereby violating citizens’ right to protest (Momen and Das, 2021). Yang and Muller’s research on China’s internet censorship demonstrates how authoritarian governments can shape public opinion and quell potential resistance through cyberspace governance. Even in Western democracies, internet governance has sparked significant debates, particularly concerning the state’s surveillance of citizens (Zajko, 2016). Despite concerns about overreaching internet governance, its implementation is justifiable as it helps combat hate speech online, restricts access to child pornography, and flags other potential criminal activities (Kurbalija, 2016). There are also various institutions involved in shaping the internet governance framework, including state institutions, telecommunication companies, international organizations, digital businesses such as social media giants, and civil society.

Pakistan is governed under the 1973 Constitution. Under this legal document, Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the right to privacy to its citizens (GOP, 2012).  The concept of “privacy of the home” in the article is extended and interpreted to digital communications. However, in the article, the freedom or right to privacy is subject to law under various circumstances, which means this freedom is not absolute. In addition, before the advent of the internet, the colonial law Telegraph Act from 1885 and the colonial-inspired Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, of 1996 governed the communication (PTA, 2023). Both Acts under clauses allowed for mass surveillance over the telephone and other forms of communication. Even before 2016, when the first law to govern digital space came into being, the Fair Trial Act, 2013 allows for the mass gathering of surveillance evidence of the accused which has enabled a culture of mass surveillance in the country. The country’s roots in colonial laws, which was itself authoritarian and its continued use of surveillance through successive laws ensured that even without a digital governance bill, their plenty of room for constantly monitoring online activities. 

It is also important to understand who uses the internet in Pakistan, so it is clear who are the ones most impacted by a host of new laws and programs designed for the internet governance in Pakistan. In 2005, the internet penetration rate was 6.3 percent but it almost tripled to 15.51 percent in 2017 and was  36.7 percent at the start of 2023 (Kemp, 2023). While this rate might be lower than the global South it is a significant number as over 87.35 million Pakistanis use the internet and, nearly 4.4 million people started using the internet just between 2022 and 2023 (Kemp, 2023). This exponential growth can be explained by not only the increase in the presence of the facility but also by the fact that during the last census, conducted in 2017, nearly 40 percent of Pakistani citizens are under the age of 14 years (UNDP, 2019). This census also indicates a youth dividend in the country saying that “64 percent of the nation is younger than 30 and 29 percent of Pakistanis are between 15 and 29” (UNDP, 2019). This youth bulge can be responsible for an increased appetite for intent consumption. Despite the rapid increase in internet unsafe, it is important to remember that two-thirds of the population does not have access to the internet (Kemp, 2023). Despite this gap, over the last decade, the government has focused its energy on extending its governance to the digital realm. 

It is also important to note that Islamist elements enshrined by political parties in power along with the “establishment” (military involved in the politics of the country) also reflect in digital governance. While it is common to use cyber tools to curb freedom of speech of civilian protests and political opposition, it has also become common practice to justify closing websites such as Wikipedia and platforms such as Facebook and YouTube out of respect for “Islamic values and sentiments” (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022; Yilmaz, 2023). For instance, former Prime Minster Imran Khan has openly advocated for banning content he deems “dangerous” for Muslim youth’s consumption. He said, “Character building is very crucial in the modern tech-savvy era. The proliferation of tech gadgets and 3G/4G internet technology has made all sorts of content available to everyone […] We need to protect our youth, especially kids, from being exposed to immoral and unethical content available online” (Jamal, 2021). Khan is not alone as various other political parties have a history of banning social media platforms because of accusation of publishing “blasphemous” content. This practice of banning websites or issuing them ultimatums to remove blasphemous content has been set in motion since the first ban of Wikipedia in 2010 (Zaccaro, 2023). At the same time, the establishment has been using its public relations agency, Inter-Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), to let citizens know of the bangers of “foreign” content in online space. They term this a “fifth generation warfare” which is propagated by the alleged “Jewish lobby,” “India” and other “foreign powers” to hurt and misguide Pakistani citizens (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). To curb this “fifth generation warfare” the ISPR has mixed jingoism with Islamist jihadist ideals to ensure that the public remains “safe” from these influences on online platforms. In such an eco-system, the state actively targets political opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders, through its vast web of cyber governance which makes the state activities digital authoritarian. 

Digital Governance 

In 2014, the government of Pakistan addressed internet governance by developing a legal framework. This resulted in the creation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which aimed to combat the misuse of electronic media and technology. The Act was passed by the Pakistani parliament in August 2016 and became effective in November of the same year. Pakistan, like many other countries, experienced a significant increase in the use of electronic media and technology. While these developments brought numerous benefits, they also posed challenges such as cybercrime, extremist propaganda, and hate speech on the internet. The PECA was formulated to tackle these challenges and establish a legal structure for addressing cybercrime while safeguarding the rights of citizens in the digital realm.

The Act encompasses a wide range of offences, including hacking, identity theft, cyberstalking, and cyberterrorism. It imposes strict penalties for those found guilty of committing such crimes. It is important to note that at the time, Pakistan was dealing with severe terrorism issues, and the PECA was presented as a vital measure for counterterrorism efforts. This context played a significant role in its swift approval within approximately a year and a half of the draft bill being presented in the National Parliament. However, critics have expressed concerns about the potential for abuse, the impact on freedom of expression, and the privacy implications of the Act. Some argue that it could be used to suppress dissenting voices and restrict access to information (Aziz, 2022). Criticisms also focus on the Act’s vague definitions of offences, lack of oversight, and accountability in its implementation.

PECA includes several key components of internet governance. It grants increased authority to public institutions such as the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for digital surveillance, data collection, and prosecution. The PTA has broad powers under Section 37 of PECA to block and remove content based on ambiguous criteria, often justifying these actions by claiming certain platforms promote “vulgarity” or “corruption of youth.” Additionally, the Act requires social media companies operating in Pakistan to comply with the law and remove any unlawful content within 24 hours of being notified by authorities. Failure to do so can result in significant fines. The government has also mandated these companies to establish local offices in Pakistan and appoint designated representatives to collaborate with law enforcement agencies.

Pakistan has invested resources to strengthen its control over the use of digital technologies in the country. PECA established a comprehensive legal framework for identifying and addressing electronic crimes, including methods for investigation, prosecution, and adjudication. Some articles of the Act specifically focus on terrorism-related online material, including hate speech. While the implementation of PECA is viewed by the state as a crucial step in counterterrorism efforts, its controversial aspects and potential impact on freedom of expression have raised concerns. Nonetheless, the Act received unanimous approval in both the Senate and the National Assembly, as all political stakeholders recognized the significance of counterterrorism measures.

Since 2016, Pakistan has created a host of laws and amendments to existing laws to specifically govern cyberspace. The foundational law which governs cyberspace is called the Prevention Electronic Crimes Act (PECA). According to Section 21 (d) of this legislation, “Whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits or displays or transmits any information which cultivates, entices or induces a natural person to engage in a sexually explicit act, through an information system to harm a natural person or his reputation, or to take revenge, or to create hatred or to blackmail, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five million rupees or with both” (GOP, 2016, 11). While on the surface the law seems a needed measure to curb cybercrime has cyberbullying, hacking and a tool to curb child pornography rings as well as a means to combat terrorism, it is quite ambiguous in its definition of a “cybercrime” which makes it rampart available for abuse in the hands of the oppressive state apparatus (Shad, 2022). 

In addition to being vague, the laws grant the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) unrested powers when it comes to surveillance on social media as well as grant the permission to retain data and seize digital tools (GOP, 2016). This law has paved the way for the state to heavily invest in technology to govern cyberspace. For instance, in 2018 the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) purchase a “web monitoring system” from Sandvine which uses DPI technology (Ali & Jahangir, 2019). Again, the hands of FIA and the military-operated Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been used to carry out mass surveillance of anyone deemed a threat via well-established social media monitoring cells as a means to counter “threats” and “terrorists” (Pasha, 2017). 

In addition to legal measures, the state has redefined the role of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). The agency is a national database, but its role has been expanded. In a shocking revelation in a WikiLeaks document, biometric data of Pakistani citizens from NADRA was provided to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and National Security Agency (NSA) to investigate “terrorists” (Digital Rights Foundation, 2022). In 2016 and 2018, various ‘safe city projects’ were launched in Islamabad and Lahore, respectively. These projects were part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) which ushered in a new wave of collaboration between the two countries. The safe city projects were built on a loan from the Export–Import Bank of China and featured a collaboration between Huawei, National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and Arup which installed mass surveillance devices to track criminal activities but also record citizens’ movements via cameras, vehicle number plate tracking, tracing telecommunication communication, drone footage, facial recognition software, etc. (Ahmed, 2021). 

Again, while these efforts are showcased as means to curb crime, there has been little proof of this. For instance, in Islamabad, the crime rate rose by 33 percent in 2016, a year after the system was implemented and the country’s national crime rate rose by 11 percent by 2018 (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). The surveillance system aids the state in mass monitoring citizen activities which often targets political and social opposition from both political and non-political resistance groups.

In addition to laws and technologies to aid cyber governance, the state has showcased a history of blocking internet access to maintain “law and order” since the early 2010s. The PTA has been the manager of this domain where it often restricts internet access at certain times and in specific regions. One of the most frequent justifications for this action is curbing terrorism. For instance, during religious gatherings (e.g., Ashura for the Shi’as) and political demonstrations, internet shutdowns have become a norm in the main law and order  (Kamran, 2017). These shutdowns are quite often targeted to remove the spread of information regarding political opposition. While in power, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) used the same mechanism to curb online coverage rallies by its political opposition the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PLM-N), now out of power, PTI gatherings in Lahore are victim to internet blackouts in the same manner (Raza, 2023).

Examples of Digital Authoritarianism 

Photo: Aleksandar Malivuk.

One of the most prominent examples of digital authoritarianism in Pakistan is showcased via its banning and blocking of content on the internet. As discussed, the most prominent reason for this gaging is the need to protect people from blasphemous or false information. YouTube was banned between 2012-2016 in the country when a video surfaced mocking Prophet Muhammad (Wilkers, 2016). Similarly, TikTok was also banned on two separate occasions, in 2020 and 2021, for “immorality and obscenity in the country” for a few days each time (Masood, 2020). PTA has also banned Twitter several times over the last ten years for various periods in years 2012 and 2021 and all times it was banned because of the spread of sacrilegious content (Verma, 2021; Reuters, 2012).  

In addition to gaging websites, internet blackouts are a routine procedure. Historically internet shutdowns were usually put in place to stop terrorist activities on days of religious significance when people gathered in mass such as the processions at Ashura, rallies of Eid Milad-un-Nabi, (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) or events where people gathered for mass payers such as Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha. However, these have now expanded to the government using these bans to target the opposition. For instance, in 2021 former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited to give a talk at an event called Asma Jahangir Conference. Due to a self-imposed exile, Sharif took part in the event via an online address which was blacked out via a targeted internet shutdown since the politician voiced his discontent with the establishment and the then-ruling PTI-led government (The News, 2021a). Conversely, in 2023, with PTI out of power, the former opposition formed an alliance government and in May 2023 Imran Khan was arrested for not appearing in several court cases. After this arrest mass protests by PTI supporters sprang across major cities in the provinces of Punjab and KP (Mao, 2023). This led to a blanket internet shutdown to curb protests for over four days (Mao, 2023). In addition, internet blockage is quite a routine matter in Western Pakistan in regions of Swat, FATA, adjoining areas, and parts of Baluchistan where military security forces regularly clash with terrorist groups ranging from separatist groups to jihadist factions (Yilmaz and Saleem, 2022). 

Internet surveillance has also peaked in Pakistan and the Pakistan military has been the major stakeholder involved in this process. In 2021, a bill was passed ensuring anyone who abused the military could face jail time and hefty fines (Abbasi, 2021). This bill has been instrumental in expanding surveillance on “anti-state” activities and punishing the accused. In May 2023, PTI protesters led to the rioting of public property, which resulted in the Prime Minster promising that “all technology available” would be used to punish vandals or some Ministers have been calling them “terrorists” (Sharif, 2023). Similarly, after the unrest calmed down, various videos have surfaced showcasing security forces and agencies using surveillance data to target peaceful protestors as well (Haq, 2022). 

Furthermore, the use of technology for national security purposes has also been employed to suppress dissent, creating another dimension to the issue. The state’s overwhelming focus on national security, particularly in countering terrorism, has resulted in neglecting its responsibilities under domestic laws, as well as international agreements like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Despite frequent incidents of data breaches and scandals involving the unauthorized release of audio and video recordings of influential political figures, judges, and journalists, there are no laws in place to safeguard against the collection of personal data and protect privacy. Civil society organizations in Pakistan have expressed concerns regarding the increasing surveillance of both the public and specific individuals such as journalists, politicians, and human rights activists (PI, 2015). They view these measures as infringements on the right to privacy. Intelligence agencies like the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), along with other authorities overseeing safe city projects, have enhanced their surveillance capabilities by establishing social media monitoring cells (Ahmed, 2021; Azeem, 2019; Yousafzai, 2023). While legal provisions permit digital surveillance for counterterrorism purposes such as blocking hate speech content, it appears that the state is utilizing its expanded surveillance capacity to suppress dissent (Aziz, 2022; Rehman, 2020).

Safe cities employ video cameras and other digital technologies to monitor and identify suspicious activities. Although safe cities encompass various ICT capabilities used in urban areas, the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ goes beyond that of ‘Safe Cities.’ The notion of Smart Cities involves providing internet connectivity and may progress to include electronic payment options for essential services and AI-controlled monitoring devices. Smart cities utilize technologies like high-speed communication networks, sensors, and mobile apps to enhance service delivery, improve mobility and connectivity, stimulate the digital economy, and overall enhance the well-being of citizens (Muggah, 2021; Goulding, 2019). To achieve this, vast amounts of data are leveraged to optimize various city functions, such as utilities, services, traffic management, and pollution control. The rapid expansion of smart city infrastructures globally has sparked controversy due to concerns over the widespread collection, retention, and manipulation of personal data by entities ranging from law enforcement agencies to private enterprises.

In Pakistan, successive administrations have collaborated closely with China to develop secure city infrastructure across urban areas. The Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA), headquartered in Lahore, is a well-known initiative in this regard. With over 6,000 cameras and sensors installed at more than 1,500 locations in Lahore, the Punjab Police, with assistance from the PSCA, can manage traffic, combat crime, and respond to emergencies (Malik, 2022). Notably, Huawei from China has been responsible for constructing all secure city systems in Pakistan. The first safe city system in Islamabad was completed in 2016 through collaboration between the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) of Pakistan and Huawei, with funding from China’s EX-IM Bank (Hong, 2022). Another safe city system was established in Lahore in 2018, with Huawei leading the construction and National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) and UK-based multinational firm Arup providing consultancy and technical support (Ahmed, 2021).

The safe city infrastructure gathers information across several categories, including personal data, vehicle and traffic data, criminal profiles, crime statistics, and parking information. Given the past instances of data breaches within the NADRA database, experts have raised concerns about data security risks. In 2019, several CCTV camera images from Lahore were posted online, featuring inappropriate sexual content (Azeem, 2019). Pakistan’s safe city surveillance systems incorporate facial recognition, artificial intelligence, vehicle number plate tracking, dedicated telecommunication networks, data centers, drones, mobile applications, and intelligent transportation systems.

The effectiveness of Huawei’s safe city infrastructure in reducing urban crime has been subject to debate. Huawei has claimed in a questionable presentation that its safe city solutions significantly reduce crime, increase case clearance rates, shorten emergency response times, and enhance citizen satisfaction. However, investigations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have indicated that these claims have been greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated (Hillman and McCalpin, 2019). In Islamabad, the crime rate continues to grow and there was an increase of 141.2 percent recorded from 2021 to 2022 (Azeem, 2022). Participants in research studies have expressed skepticism, stating that they have not witnessed any positive outcomes or reduction in crime rates because of the safe city projects. A local journalist shared the following views: “For example, in Islamabad, we see that more than 2,200 cameras are installed in only one city. But if we talk about Lahore city there are more than 6,000 cameras installed. They enable the government to monitor the movement of people. They claim that they have installed them to control the law and security situation in cities and to control the crime rate in Pakistan, but we have not seen any positive outcome in that regard through a reduction in the crime rate”  (Baloch, 2022).

Despite the state’s justification that safe city projects primarily serve counterterrorism efforts, it is evident that surveillance technology is being selectively employed. While it is used to counter terrorism and publicly release videos of terrorists involved in major attacks, such as the one in Peshawar in 2023, it is also increasingly utilized to target individuals critical of the government, its officials, and state institutions like the army (Gul, 2022). Examples have emerged of facial recognition technology being used to track down and apprehend individuals who verbally attacked government figures (Nadeem, 2022). Numerous cases have been documented where people have been detained by authorities for posting critical comments on social media. In these instances, individuals are subjected to torture and coerced into making public apologies, with videos of their apologies subsequently released on social media platforms (Dawn, 2022a).

The level of surveillance implemented in Pakistan is linked to an authoritarian approach. Surveillance capabilities are being employed for political purposes rather than solely for the defense of the country or public good. Recorded videos obtained through surveillance serve as leverage for those working behind the scenes, allowing them to exert control by capturing and disseminating compromising material (Khan, 2023; Dawn, 2022b). The timing of the video releases is crucial. Detailed records are maintained on important politicians, indicating a potentially illegal and unconstitutional practice that is incompatible with a democratic society. The impact of these authoritarian measures is evident, as journalists increasingly practice self-censorship and exercise caution in their smartphone usage. Awareness of traceability and concerns over the hacking of email and social media accounts have led to heightened vigilance among social media activists, journalists, and political leaders. However, despite the challenges, Pakistanis continue to find ways to express their opinions, often resorting to satire as a means of circumventing restrictions. Notable media personalities, such as Anwar Maqsood, have managed to avoid trouble by indirectly criticizing state institutions.

The judiciary in Pakistan has been a significant source of resistance against the growing digital authoritarianism and digital control measures implemented by the state. This ongoing process involves various legal cases under the PECA, the authority of institutions like the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and concerns related to data protection and privacy. The PECA Amendment of 2022, which primarily aims to criminalize defamation and make it a non-bailable offence, has faced critical scrutiny from local courts. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that expanding PECA’s already extensive provisions on criminal defamation to online statements about government institutions violates Pakistan’s international obligations. Media organizations in Pakistan challenged the PECA Amendment in the Islamabad High Court, where Justice Athar Minallah declared the new legal provisions a violation of freedom of speech as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan (Naseer, 2022). The court also instructed the interior ministry to investigate the conduct of the FIA’s Cyber Crime Wing due to concerns of power abuse and infringement of individuals’ fundamental rights. Justice Minallah emphasized that no one should fear criticism, particularly in relation to defamation and concerns raised by public officeholders regarding social media attacks. As a result, the FIA closed nearly 7,000 cases, primarily related to defamation.

Civil Society Activism for Digital Rights in Pakistan 

In many ways, there are still not enough laws in Pakistan to deal with digital rights, but the pressure is growing on policymakers to pay attention to the issues of privacy and data protection. This is mainly because Pakistan is home to a strong network of civil society organizations that also work closely with relevant international organizations to raise awareness on issues relevant issues, i.e., digital rights. There are several organizations in Pakistan that work for digital rights and strive to protect internet freedom, and privacy, and promote digital literacy. Let us look at some of the prominent organizations in this space in Pakistan. Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is a non-profit organization that focuses on the advocacy of digital rights in Pakistan. They work on various issues, including online harassment, data protection, freedom of expression, and women’s digital rights. DRF conducts research, provides legal assistance, and offers digital security training and awareness programs. 

Bolo Bhi is a civil society organization that advocates for open access to information, digital security, and internet freedom in Pakistan. They engage in policy advocacy, conduct research, and provide digital literacy training. Bolo Bhi also works to raise awareness about online censorship, surveillance, and privacy issues. 

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is a non-profit organization that focuses on media development, digital rights, and freedom of expression in Pakistan. They work towards promoting online civic spaces, digital literacy, and defending digital rights through research, policy advocacy, and capacity-building programs. 

Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) is a research-based initiative that aims to monitor and analyze internet governance issues in Pakistan. They conduct policy research, produce reports, and provide recommendations on topics such as data protection, surveillance, and censorship. iPOP also engages in advocacy efforts to promote a free and open internet. 

Although not based in Pakistan, Privacy International is a global organization that advocates for privacy rights and challenges surveillance practices worldwide. They work with local partners and provide support in the context of Pakistan to raise awareness, carry out research, and advocate for stronger privacy protections. These organizations actively engage with policymakers, raise public awareness, and work towards protecting digital rights in Pakistan through research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities.

Internet Access

Internet connection in Pakistan. llustration Contributor: AlexLMX

With the proliferation of the internet worldwide, several civil society organizations have dedicated their efforts to shed light on the significant issue of inadequate internet access within Pakistan. These organizations aim to amplify the voice of society, urging the government to invest in improving internet access. In this vein, Bytes for All, Pakistan (B4A), is a well-known digital rights organization, that seeks to secure digital rights and freedom of expression for civil liberties. In the end, they organize seminars, workshop training and produce various publications. For example, B4A has published annual reports on internet access in Pakistan (Haque, 2023). The 2022 report shows that there has been some progress in terms of internet access in Pakistan, but the country is still behind many Asian countries. One key finding of the report reveals that despite increased internet penetration, around 15 percent of the population remains without any access, while others face challenges such as slow speeds and inconsistent service, hindering meaningful internet access (Haque, 2023: 5). Pakistan ranks 118th in mobile broadband and 150th in fixed broadband, as per the B4A report (Haque, 2023: 9). The organization also raises concerns about the government’s attempts to restrict the internet and control cyberspace, including filing cases against journalists, activists, and political opponents for expressing unfavorable views on social media and proposing stricter defamation laws to counter dissent. To enhance internet access in Pakistan, B4A provides several important recommendations. These include recognizing fixed broadband as critical infrastructure and developing a national broadband strategy with a fiber plan. Additionally, improving the investment climate and financing options within the digital ecosystem and streamlining government administration are identified as essential actions for expediting implementation.

Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) is another Pakistani organization focused on media literacy, digital democracy, progressive media, and internet regulation. They also work on integrating digital media and journalism technologies and creating sustainable initiatives in the media-tech sector. They provide several online free courses in different subjects. For example, their course “understanding citizen journalism” includes 54 lessons and “Digital Disinformation and Journalistic Responsibilities” encompasses 82 lessons (Arsalan, 2023; Khan, Mindeel and Shaukat, 2023). Also, this organization publish research investigations and policy papers. In one of their comprehensive reports, titled “Connecting the disconnected: mapping in digital access in Pakistan,” MMfD highlights that approximately 52.79 percent of Pakistan’s population, equivalent to 116 million people, has access to some form of internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 7). However, the report suggests that despite high tele density indicating cellular service connectivity for nearly 88 percent of the population, there remains a significant gap in internet access, particularly in mobile and broadband services across most parts of the country (Kamra et al., 2022: 16). Accordingly, the number of broadband subscribers stands at 116 million, 3G/4G mobile internet subscriptions at 113 million, and basic telephon subscribers at 2 million, representing only 1.14 percent of the total population (Kamra et al., 2022: 17). This reveals that over 47 percent of the population remains disconnected from the internet (Kamra et al., 2022: 25). 

The report stresses that various factors contribute to this gap, with disparities evident between urban and rural areas. The available data does not offer a breakdown based on rural/urban or gender demographics, which are significant barriers to internet connectivity. They also argue that the COVID-19 lockdown further exacerbated these disparities, with individuals in peripheral and rural areas facing challenges due to limited infrastructure, while low-income communities struggled to afford smartphones and internet connections. The organization advocates for ensuring that human and social justice values drive technical development and use in Pakistan by providing some key recommendations. They emphasize the need for policies and regulations related to internet access to follow a rights-respecting model. Also, it is underlined that a core focus should be bridging the digital divide across class, gender, age, and geography as well as increasing digital literacy. In addition, they urge the government to make the Internet economy inclusive, address the need for online social norms, and empower individuals to shape their futures. Finally, the report emphasizes that building robust, secure, and resilient networks is crucial (Kamra et al., 2022).

Moreover, the efforts of civil society organizations to advocate for internet access are evident in various initiatives. One significant area of concern raised by these organizations is the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, issued in 2020. In terms of the obstacles of this law to internet access, a report published by DRF argued that these rules violate fundamental and constitutional rights, particularly Articles 14 and 19. The analysis emphasizes that these regulations impede the free movement of data, creating artificial barriers to information sharing and hindering global communication. Additionally, they exacerbate the lack of accessibility and affordability of internet connectivity for individuals and businesses. This issue is particularly detrimental as reducing connectivity costs is vital for expanding economic opportunities, promoting the digital economy, and generating wealth in Pakistan (DRF, 2020b).

Bolo Bhi, another digital rights organization, has also expressed concerns about the Citizen Protection laws, highlighting their attempt to gain jurisdiction over social networking platforms and access data. Their objective extends beyond content restriction to encompass accessing communication content and filtering technology. Bolo Bhi points out aspirations to establish local offices and data servers for unrestricted data access, which has been a recurring theme in previous attempts (Bolo Bhi, 2020).

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the country’s leading independent human rights body, advocates for internet access and freedom of expression as fundamental human rights in their reports. In a collaborative study titled ‘Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Pakistan: A Legislative Review,’ released in partnership with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in March 2022, the HRCP called for a reassessment of the existing legislative framework, which still reflects policing strategies from the colonial era. Regarding internet access, the report proposes granting unrestricted media and digital access during assemblies, promoting freedom of speech and movement, rather than imposing content-based restrictions or blocking routes (HRCP, 2020).

It should also be noted that addressing the significant digital divide in Pakistani society is one of the key challenges in internet access. While limited access to technology is commonly associated with the digital divide, factors such as poverty, illiteracy, lack of computer literacy, and language barriers contribute to this issue in Pakistan. In response, the Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) takes concrete actions beyond workshops and reports. According to their website, they provide computers, communication equipment, software, and training to tackle the digital divide. The organization reports that most low-income households in the country find themselves on the disadvantaged side of the digital and knowledge divide. Consequently, their ability to participate effectively in the knowledge society remains significantly underdeveloped and underutilized. This situation puts these households at risk of further marginalization in a knowledge-driven society, where access to and utilization of information technology are just a fraction of the broader challenges they face (IPOP, 2023).

By and large, civil society organizations play a crucial role in advocating for improved internet access and reducing the digital divide in Pakistan. These organizations act as catalysts for change by advocating for policies and initiatives that promote equitable access to technology and bridge the gap between different segments of society. As discussed above, civil society organizations raise awareness about the importance of internet access as a fundamental right and a driver of socio-economic development. They highlight the disparities in access and the barriers faced by marginalized communities, such as low-income households, women, and rural populations. By bringing these issues to the forefront, civil society organizations can create a sense of urgency among policymakers and stakeholders to address the digital divide and make internet access more inclusive. 

Moreover, civil society organizations actively engage in research, advocacy, and capacity-building activities to promote digital literacy and skills development. They organize workshops, training programs, and awareness campaigns to empower individuals with the necessary knowledge and tools to navigate the digital landscape. By enhancing digital literacy, these organizations enable individuals to fully participate in the digital age, access online opportunities, and leverage technology for personal and professional growth. 

Eventually, civil society organizations play a critical role in monitoring and influencing policy development and implementation. They provide expert analysis, recommendations, and feedback on laws, regulations, and initiatives related to internet access and digital rights. Through their engagement with government agencies, regulatory bodies, and other stakeholders, these organizations attempt to ensure that policies are inclusive, rights-based, and responsive to the needs of diverse communities.

Privacy

Privacy is an essential aspect of individuals’ rights, encompassing their ability to maintain control over personal information, safeguard it from unauthorized access, and prevent unwanted intrusions. In Pakistan, the right to privacy is constitutionally protected under Article 14, which upholds individuals’ dignity and personal autonomy. However, despite this recognition, several challenges hinder people in Pakistan from effectively protecting their privacy, particularly in cyberspace.

One key challenge is the limited digital literacy among most of the population. In response, civil society organizations play a crucial role in educating the public through campaigns, seminars, research publications, policy reports, workshops, and awareness programs. For example, DRF has published a report, titled “Young People and Privacy in Online Space”, which aims to raise concern about the privacy of youth in cyberspace (DRF, 2021b). The report acknowledges that despite the ongoing increase in the number of young people users on the internet, and particularly social media, they face insufficient protection and have limited awareness of their privacy rights. The organization suggests that young generations recognize the gendered nature of online harm, particularly impacting women. Therefore, the report emphasizes that it is crucial to foster collaboration to enhance legal frameworks and establish effective mechanisms to safeguard young people’s rights. DRF has also published privacy-related reports that provide up-to-date information regarding digital privacy. They include ‘How to keep your social media secure and anonymous,’ ‘Understand cyber-harassment,’ ‘What to do when there is a privacy breach?’, ‘Protect against viruses and malware’ and ‘Two-factor authentication’ (DRF, 2020a). 

Another privacy concern in Pakistan stems from the government surveillance system, which has advanced in recent years. In this vein, civil society organizations and activists in Pakistan have been advocating for stronger digital privacy protections. They have called for greater transparency in government surveillance activities, improvements in data protection practices, and the need for comprehensive privacy legislation aligned with international standards. In 2019, Bolo Bhi raised concerns about the Web Monitoring System (WMS) deployed by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The WMS aims to monitor and control internet traffic for commercial and security purposes. However, the organization underlined that the lack of safeguards and judicial oversight raises concerns about the potential misuse of surveillance capabilities (BoloBhi, 2019). Bolo Bhi urged the government to take concrete steps to demonstrate the veracity and reliability of its claims that the WMS will not restrict internet freedom. Moreover, the director of this civil society organization suggested that transparency regarding the technology provider, Sandvine Inc, and its security audit is crucial. Public accountability and corporate responsibility should be upheld to align with international principles of human rights, freedom of expression, and privacy (BoloBhi 2019). 

Digital Rights Monitor, a project under MMfD, has attempted to contribute to improving digital privacy in Pakistan. They have produced a series of videos, titled ‘Privacy-in-Law: Legal Framework of Digital Privacy Laws in Pakistan’ (Kamran, 2019). These videos provide information about the enacted laws that protect citizens’ privacy and assess their implementation in Pakistan. The videos cover important legislation such as the ‘NADRA Ordinance, 2000,’ ‘The Investigation for Fair Trial Act, 2013,’ ‘The Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, 1996,’ and the ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA).’ They seek to uncover the details of the laws that are aimed at framing data security regulations, regulating law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ power to investigate criminal cases, and countering increasing crime originating from cyberspace.

Bytes for All (B4A) has also been active in highlighting the importance of privacy in the virtual world. In 2020, the organization published a report titled, ‘The Scope of Privacy Commission in Pakistan,’ which strongly advocated for the establishment of an independent and autonomous Privacy Commission free from political or executive influence (Raza and Baloch, 2020). This commission is deemed essential for protecting citizens’ digital data and providing redressal for privacy-related violations. B4A has also conducted personal training sessions on digital privacy and raised public awareness by addressing topics such as the ‘Dangers of Digital Surveillance’ (Raza and Baloch, 2020). To enhance online privacy in Pakistan, digital rights advocates in this organization, have put forth several recommendations for the government to consider. These recommendations can be summarized as follows (Baloch and Qammar, 2020):

– Revise laws to limit intelligence agencies’ powers in intercepting digital communications and private data of journalists and human rights defenders.

– Define clear criteria for digital surveillance in the context of national security and counterterrorism.

– Cease mass digital surveillance on citizens.

– Promote encrypted communications for the safety of vulnerable groups.

– Include secure communications training in public sector education, especially in journalism and law.

– Respect citizens’ right to privacy, especially journalists and human rights defenders, to strengthen democracy, freedom of speech, and information access.

Civil society organizations actively participate in policy discussions and provide valuable input during the development of privacy-related laws and regulations. They bring the perspectives and concerns of the public to the attention of policymakers, advocating for privacy-focused policies that strike a balance between security and individual rights. Their involvement aims to assess to what extent the government measures align with the principles of transparency, accountability, and respect for privacy. In Pakistan, with the new wave of internet penetration, particularly among young generations, the effort of civil society organizations is essential for fostering a privacy-conscious society and holding governments accountable for protecting individuals’ digital privacy rights. Through their persistent advocacy, these organizations can contribute to a more informed and balanced policy-making process. They provide expertise and recommendations based on research and analysis, offering practical solutions that protect privacy rights while addressing security challenges. Their efforts underscore the importance of privacy as a fundamental right, even in the face of increasing surveillance measures.

Data Protection

Illustration Contributor:
PX Media.

Data protection entails safeguarding personal information against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure. It encompasses obtaining consent, employing data for specific purposes, minimizing data collection, ensuring accuracy, implementing security measures, respecting individual rights, and safeguarding data during transfers. Upholding privacy and cultivating trust with individuals is both a legal and ethical obligation. While data protection and privacy are closely related, they carry distinct meanings. Data protection focuses on safeguarding personal information, whereas privacy centers on maintaining control over one’s personal life and information. Data protection ensures the secure handling of data, while privacy encompasses broader aspects of personal autonomy and limiting unwarranted intrusion.

Currently, Pakistan lacks comprehensive legislation specifically governing the processing of personal data. However, like the privacy domain, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) serves as a legal framework to address electronic crimes and unauthorized access to personal data. Under PECA, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MOITT) has established the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2021, granting the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the authority to remove or block access to information systems (Rehman, 2022). The Personal Data Protection Bill 2021, which is awaiting enactment, will become the primary legislation regulating the processing of personal data in Pakistan. It will apply to individuals and entities that control, process, or authorize the processing of personal data within the country.

Digital rights organizations have actively campaigned for data protection in Pakistan. The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), for instance, has been proactive in providing feedback on the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB). They have submitted various reports to the government to enhance the bill to align with international standards. The organization, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), has identified several persistent issues in the bill since 2018 that must be addressed to align with global data protection standards and privacy rights. According to DRF, concerns have been raised regarding the broad powers granted to the Federal Government, which could lead to self-interested interpretation and evasion of regulation. They have also expressed concerns about the lack of independence of the National Commission for Personal Data Protection (NCPDP), as it remains under the administrative control of the Federal Government, compromising its autonomy and failing to meet international standards (DRF, 2021a).

DRF has stressed that the requirement for ‘critical personal data’ to be processed within Pakistani servers is impractical and akin to data localization, which could hinder business operations and investment. Ambiguities exist in terms like ‘national interest’ and ‘national security’ without clear definitions, granting the government wide discretion in implementing the law. DRF highlights that the bill also lacks provisions addressing emerging technologies such as automated decision-making and artificial intelligence, necessitating further elaboration and the inclusion of non-discrimination safeguards. DRF emphasizes the need for specific language, defined terms, and adequate safeguards to ensure that the law aligns with legislative intent and effectively protects digital rights.

In addition, B4A Pakistan has published at least 13 comprehensive reports on data protection in Pakistan. These reports encompass various aspects, including submissions to the government for consultation and the creation of training materials. One of their reports, titled ‘Electronic Data Protection in Pakistan,’  provides a thorough analysis of the country’s data protection status and offers key recommendations (Gilani et al., 2017). B4A highlights the concerning absence of data protection legislation in Pakistan, particularly given the increasing volume of citizens’ data being processed daily. Urgent action is required to establish clear and effective data protection laws that meet the demands of the digital era. Failure to do so may lead foreign companies to perceive Pakistan as an unsafe business environment, deterring them from outsourcing their services to the country. B4A provides several recommendations to address these concerns, including (Gilani et al., 2017):

– Amendment to PTA is necessary. The Protection of Privacy Act (PTA) of Pakistan is incompatible with Article 17 of the ICCPR.

– There is an urgent need for an independent authority to oversee data protection compliance.

– A system of accountability for data breaches should be established.

– The Electronic Data Protection Bill of 2005 is not fit for purpose.

– Pakistan should investigate adopting data protection legislation similar to the GDPR.

– Education of citizens about personal data and its value is urgently needed.

– The principle of individual consent for processing data should be included in any new legislation.

– The use of data anonymization mechanisms should be strongly encouraged.

Furthermore, Bolo Bhi has allocated a dedicated section on its website to address issues concerning data protection. The organization actively publishes research-based reports to advocate for the implementation of enhanced legislation in the field of data protection. In one of their reports, they conducted a comparative analysis between the draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2020 in Pakistan and similar laws such as the GDPR, the Malaysian Personal Data Protection Act 2010, the UK’s Data Protection Act (DPA) 2018, and India’s Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (Shahani, 2020). The comparison revealed several shortcomings in the draft Bill proposed in Pakistan, including:

– The Authority set up under the draft Bill lacks independence and autonomy.

– The exemptions to the prohibition of processing of ‘personal data’ including ‘sensitive personal data’ are too broad.

– The Bill does not cover intelligence agencies’ collection, storage, and use of data. 

Overall, despite Pakistan’s increasing participation in the digital sphere, the government must move quickly to prioritize data protection due to the country’s rapidly expanding online population. In fact, as Bolo Bhi urged, Pakistan should take note of what other developed nations have to say. The government can take the required actions to strengthen data protection safeguards and ensure the privacy and security of its citizens’ personal information by taking note of successful practices already in place abroad. By enacting effective policies and regulations that adhere to international standards, Pakistan must give priority to the rights and well-being of its citizens in the digital sphere.

As a final point regarding the role of civil society organizations in Pakistan in promoting digital rights, internet access, privacy, and data protection, it should be emphasized that they tirelessly raise awareness about these important issues, attempt to facilitate fruitful dialogue between citizens and policymakers, and actively work towards holding those responsible accountable. Through their diligent work, they hope to greatly contribute to the creation of efficient laws and procedures that uphold the rights of people and promote a safe and welcoming online environment for everyone. To influence decision-makers to meet the requirements of the populace, these organizations offer insightful research-based studies, policy suggestions, workshops, seminars, online and offline training sessions, and periodical audits of internet legislation and privacy rules. Or to put it another way, they try to help.

Conclusion

Pakistan’s historical trajectory has been marked by a series of challenges, including violence, religious divisions, and an ongoing struggle to define its national identity. These factors have significantly shaped the current political landscape of the country. Despite its aspirations to establish a stable democracy, Pakistan has faced recurring periods of military rule, which have undermined democratic processes and institutions.

The governance challenges in Pakistan include limitations on press freedom, restrictions on the right to protest, and interference from the military establishment. These issues have raised concerns about the strength and integrity of Pakistan’s democratic system. Furthermore, the military’s influence has often overshadowed civilian governance, leading to complex power dynamics within the country.

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed the emergence of digital authoritarianism as a governing strategy. This involves using digital technologies and surveillance mechanisms to control and monitor online activities. The government has implemented legislation like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to regulate cyberspace. However, the vague definitions of cybercrime within PECA and the broad surveillance powers granted to agencies such as the FIA and ISI raise apprehensions about potential abuses of power.

To enforce digital authoritarianism, the state has invested in advanced technological capabilities for monitoring online communications. This includes the acquisition of web monitoring systems and the establishment of social media monitoring cells. These measures aim to consolidate the state’s control over cyberspace and curtail citizens’ digital privacy.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s democratic fabric is not entirely eroded. In addition to push back from the judiciary, Pakistan has a strong civil society and there are various human rights organizations, including the ones that exclusively focus on digital rights. Human rights organizations, including those specifically focused on digital rights, play a crucial role in advocating for the protection of digital freedoms in Pakistan. These organizations voice concerns about the need for stronger legislation on data protection and privacy and advocate for equitable access to the internet, especially for marginalized communities in remote regions like ex-FATA and Balochistan.

By highlighting these concerns and advocating for digital rights, civil society organizations and the judiciary serve as important checks and balances against the encroachment of digital authoritarianism. Their efforts contribute to promoting transparency, accountability, and respect for individual rights in the digital sphere, despite the challenges posed by the current political landscape in Pakistan.


 

Funding: This research was funded by Gerda Henkel Foundation, AZ 01/TG/21, Emerging Digital Technologies and the Future of Democracy in the Muslim World.


 

(*) Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. He is also a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. During 2017-19, Dr Ahmed was a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. During 2013-16, he was an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Peace and Stability, National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan. His work focuses on political developments (e.g., democratization, authoritarianism and political Islam), foreign affairs, peace and security in South Asia and the Middle East. He has published extensively in leading journals, such as Politics and Religion, Democratization, Asian Studies Review, and Territory, Politics, Governance. He is the author of Regionalism and Regional Security in South Asia: The Role of SAARC (Routledge, 2013). He is a co-author of Iran’s Soft Power in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Edinburgh University Press, 2023). Email: zahid.ahmed@deakin.edu.au

(**) Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University (Australia). He held a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship (2013-2016) on the Role of Islam in Iran’s Foreign Policy-making and recently completed a Qatar Foundation project on Sectarianism in the Middle East. Prof Akbarzadeh has an extensive publication record and has contributed to the public debate on the political processes in the Middle East, regional rivalry and Islamic militancy. In 2022 he joined Middle East Council on Global Affairs as a Non-resident Senior Fellow. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=8p1PrpUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh  Email: shahram.akbarzadeh@deakin.edu.au

(***) Dr Galib Bashirov is an associate research fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University, Australia. His research examines state-society relations in the Muslim world and US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. His previous works have been published in Review of International Political Economy, Democratization, and Third World Quarterly. Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=qOt3Zm4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao  Email: galib.bashirov@deakin.edu.au


 

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