Not Free
A Obstacles to Access 5 25
B Limits on Content 15 35
C Violations of User Rights 7 40
Last Year's Score & Status
29 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Key Developments, June 1, 2017 - May 31, 2018

  • The government continued to restrict connectivity during religious and national holidays, and several districts in the less developed regions of Baluchistan remained with no mobile internet access (see Restrictions on Connectivity).
  • In November 2017, social media platforms were suspended nationwide for two days in the wake of protests that turned violent (see Restrictions on Connectivity and Blocking and Filtering).
  • Two men were sentenced to death for blasphemy after sharing content on social media and communication platforms. Appeals of the convictions are pending (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).
  • Attackers targeted the accounts and devices of human rights defenders by installing spyware to monitor and conduct surveillance (see Technical Attacks).

header2 Introduction

Internet freedom declined in 2018 following two death sentences for online activity, technical attacks against human rights defenders, and restrictions to connectivity and social media platforms. A problematic cybercrime law also contributed to the ongoing deterioration of online freedom.

General elections were held in July 2018, following the reporting period. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party secured the most seats, with Imran Khan becoming the new prime minister. In the lead up to the vote, bots supporting political parties surfaced online, including many spewing disinformation.

The government continues to use national security to justify internet shutdowns and restrictions to social media and communication platforms. The National Assembly and Senate passed Pakistan’s first comprehensive cybercrime act in 2016, including provisions that allow censorship and surveillance, and could be used to punish online speech. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act has come under intense criticism in Pakistan as well as from international rights organizations and the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression. Rules governing its implementation were still pending during the coverage period.

Internet users were again arrested and prosecuted for online expression. In a disturbing move, two men were sentenced to death for online speech, convictions that have been appealed. Meanwhile, torture and sexual violence in detention remain a pressing problem. New reports also detailed technical attacks targeting human rights defenders and their accounts and devices.

A Obstacles to Access

A lack of resources and underdeveloped infrastructure limits internet penetration rates in Pakistan, but mobile internet access is increasing following the recent launch of faster 3G and 4G service. However, Pakistani authorities frequently disable mobile internet access during times of perceived political or religious sensitivity, in addition to the long-term denial of service in marginalized areas.

Availability and Ease of Access

Internet penetration registered only marginal increases during the reporting period. While the cost of internet has fallen considerably in the last few years,1 access remains out of reach for the majority of the population, and high taxes on internet service push prices higher. In the 2017-18 federal budget, the withholding tax on telecommunication services was brought down from 14 percent to 12.5 percent. In June 2017, the Punjab government re-imposed a 5 percent tax on all internet services, which will cost more than Rs1,500 (US$12) per month.2 According to the International Monetary Fund, Pakistan is one of the ten countries with the most people not connected to the internet; 200 million Pakistanis do not have internet access.3

In March 2017, the Peshawar High Court struck down a challenge by the telecommunications provider Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) against a 19.5 percent tax rate levied on internet, email, and data services by the government in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The court rejected the petitioner’s arguments that the high cost restricted internet usage among students, small businesses, and others.4

The affordability of telecommunications was a source of debate during the coverage period. In 2017, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) admitted that the mobile recharge tax included in the 2018 budget is “too high” and places an undue burden on users.5 In May 2018, the chief justice of the Supreme Court took notice of the heavy tax on “mobile cards,”6 which included charges for a prepaid mobile card, a 19.5 percent federal excise duty, a 12.5 percent withholding tax, and a 10 percent service fee.7

There are 57 million broadband connections in Pakistan.8 Broadband subscriptions based on DSL, which uses existing telephone networks or wireless WiMax technology, are concentrated in urban areas. Most remote areas lack broadband, and many users depend on slow dial-up connections or EDGE, an early mobile internet technology. In such areas, online activity that depends on high-speed connections, such as multimedia training, can be challenging, though faster 3G and 4G networks are making inroads, albeit at a slow pace. 27 percent of cellular subscribers (55 million people) used 3G or 4G connections as of April 2018.9 According to the PTA, 87 percent of the population lives where mobile service is available, 70 percent of which have access to 3G and 30 percent have access to 4G.10

Pakistan’s internet speed is ranked 89th in the world, and first in South Asia, by the speed-testing company Ookla. As of December 2017, the average mobile download rate was 13.08 Mbps and the average fixed broadband download rate was 6.13 Mbps.11

Parts of western Pakistan lack internet access, in many cases due to underdevelopment or ongoing conflict. According to one study, more than 75 percent of tribal areas and 60 percent of the impoverished southwestern province of Baluchistan lacked fiber-optic connections in 2013.12 Smart phone penetration rates are estimated at 30 percent, and approximately 50 million people do not have mobile phones.13

Government initiatives to promote access have made progress in recent years. In 2017, the Punjab government installed 192 free internet hotspots Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Multan,14 though Pakistan’s poor record of protecting user privacy may make some users reluctant to use them (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity). In January 2018, it was announced that more than PKR 10 billion (US$81 million) worth of projects were launched, awarded by the Universal Service Funds (USF), to provide broadband service to remote areas, particularly Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region. In February 2018, 3G and 4G services were extended to Gilgit-Baltistan for the first time as part of infrastructural development in the region.15

Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and cultural resistance have also limited the proliferation of ICTs.16

Karlstad Press, 2011) doi: The digital divide between men and women in Pakistan is among the highest in the world as a result of religious, social, and cultural restrictions on women owning devices.17 Even women who have access are likely to have their digital activities heavily monitored by family members and other social connections. Women who are active online report high levels of online harassment that discourages greater utilization of ICTs. At least one woman was killed during the reporting period in reprisal for sharing images of herself on social media (see Intimidation and Violence).

Increasingly stringent security measures mean that users must register fingerprints along with other identifying information when applying for broadband internet packages and mobile service.18 This has worrying implications for human rights activists and others who rely on anonymous internet access, and may discourage some from seeking home service. Unregistered phones have been subject to disconnection (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).

Restrictions on Connectivity

The government restricts connectivity and social media and communication platforms routinely, and several districts in the less developed regions of Baluchistan have remained with no mobile internet access since early 2017. Damaged or inadequate infrastructure also periodically disrupts access. In February 2018, the Islamabad High Court directly addressed mobile internet shutdowns in the country.

In November 2017, social media platforms were suspended in the wake of protests by Islamists that turned violent; the protestors objected to a new oath that lawmakers take when sworn into office that omits mention of the Prophet Mohammed.19 The nationwide suspension lasted from November 25-26.20 According to the Digital Rights Foundation, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were restricted on mobile operators Mobilink, Zong, Telenor, and Ufone, and on fixed providers PTCL, Witribe, Zong, and Cybernet; while YouTube restrictions were only partially implemented.21 There were also reports of DailyMotion being blocked.22

Security considerations continued to intrude on telecommunication services during religious and national holidays:

  • On September 29, 2017, mobile services were suspended for several hours in more than a dozen cities and towns due to security concerns surrounding processions scheduled during the Ashura holiday. Mobile services were suspended in Karachi, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Jacobabad, Kashmore, Khairpur, Shikarpur, and other parts of Sindh province.23 The Ashura holiday is observed most visibly by the Shiite sect, which is a minority group in Pakistan and often the target of sectarian terrorist groups.
  • On December 1, 2017, mobile internet services were suspended in the major cities of Sindh and Baluchistan on account of 12th Rabiul Awwal.24 The services were suspended for twelve hours, from 8 am to 8 pm, in Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Mirpurkhas and Quetta.25

During the coverage period, 3G, 4G, and LTE mobile internet services were also shut down in areas that receive little media attention, such as the less developed regions of Baluchistan.26 Several districts of Baluchistan, including Chagai, Pishin, Panjgoor, Killa Abdullah, Turbat, Qalat, Kharan, Panjgur and Dalbandin, have had no mobile internet service since February 2017. No reason or official notification has been given for the shutdown. Furthermore, no deadline has been provided for restoration.27 The suspension was reportedly enacted with the consent of law enforcement agencies, but no specific security threat to justify the shutdown was disclosed.28

The government briefly suspended mobile internet in different parts of the country in 2016 and 2017; the shutdowns were justified with the claim that terrorist groups could use the networks to coordinate attacks. Much longer shutdowns were implemented in restive border regions, including one lasting more than a year in FATA.29 The state also controls most of the backbone infrastructure. It remains unclear whether the FATA merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which was approved by parliament in May 2018, will lead to the restoration of mobile internet.

Section 54 of the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act grants authorities the power to suspend services, but only during a state of emergency. The law’s use to support the routine shutdowns described in this report is being challenged in the courts. In 2017, the Sindh High Court had yet to issue a decision in cases brought in 2012 by Telenor Pakistan and a doctor who reported being unable to communicate with patients during a shutdown, among others.30

In February 2018, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) held in a landmark ruling that mobile network shutdowns on the pretext of public safety under Section 54(3) of the PTA Act, including mobile-based internet suspension, infringed upon the fundamental rights of citizens and were thus illegal.31 However, in March 2018, the IHC suspended the judgment and the matter is pending before the court.32 The IHC was originally hearing a separate petition challenging telecommunications shutdowns during Pakistan Day celebrations.

The economic cost of service disruptions is high. According to an October 2016 report by the Center for Technology Innovation at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution, internet shutdowns cost Pakistan’s economy US$69.7 million between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.33 A separate 2015 report highlighted that shutting down cellular services places citizens at risk, rather than protecting them.34

Damaged or inadequate infrastructure also restricts users’ access to the internet.35 In August 2017, damage to an international submarine cable system, I-ME-WE (India-Middle East-Western Europe), led to a nationwide disruption in service for approximately 48 hours.36 The incident highlighted the need for diversified internet infrastructure, as another international cable system SEA-ME-WE 4 (Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4) that is key to internet access in Pakistan, was under repair at the time. Power outages, characterized as among the worst in Asia, also limited connectivity in 2016 and 2017.37

The state also exerts considerable influence over the internet backbone. The predominantly state-owned PTCL controls the country’s largest internet exchange point, Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE), which has three main nodes—in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore—and 42 smaller nodes nationwide. PIE operated the nation’s sole internet backbone until 2009, when additional bandwidth was offered by TransWorld Associates on its private fiber-optic cable, TW1.38

PTCL also controls access to three international undersea fiber-optic cables: SEA-ME-WE 3 (South-East Asia-Middle East -Western Europe 3) and SEA-ME-WE 4 connect Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe; and I-ME-WE (India-Middle East-Western Europe) links India, the Middle East, and Western Europe.39 In July 2017, PTCL joined the AAE-1 (Asia-Africa-Europe-1) cable system. The 25,000-kilometer-long cable was built as part of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and provides the lowest latency route to several countries across three continents.40 Internet rights groups have raised concerns regarding the dangers of a proposed terrestrial cable between Pakistan and China, given “China’s model of internet regulation.”41

ICT Market

The Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan reported that 50 ISPs were operational in the country as of October 2014, the latest available data; ten provided DSL services.42 According to licensing information published by the PTA in 2018, there were 12 licensed wireless local loop (WLL) operators,43 16 long distance and international (LDI) operators,44 and 21 operational fixed local loop (FLL) operators.45 Several dozen licenses had also been issued for companies, providing value added services in the telecommunications sector.46 The government regulator, the PTA, exerts significant control over internet and mobile providers through a bureaucratic process that includes hefty licensing fees.47

The predominantly state-owned PTCL has long dominated the broadband market.48 The Telecom Policy established in 2015 aimed to instill competitive practices in the telecom sector, though it led to overlapping regulatory powers for the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom (MoITT) and the Competition Commission Pakistan (CCP). However, since the introduction of high-speed mobile internet, mobile internet accounts for approximately 88 percent of the broadband market, which has changed the dynamics of the industry.49 PTCL still dominates the fixed local loop market (95 percent),50 but controls less of the wireless local loop market (37 percent),51 just ahead of its main competitor, Wi-Tribe, a private company owned by the HB group (32 percent).52 WLL penetration was less than 1 percent in November 2016.53

There are four cellular mobile operators in Pakistan.54 Pakistan Mobile Communications Limited (PMCL) is operated by its parent company VEON, which is headquartered in Amsterdam, and has a market share of 37percent. It began phasing out the Mobilink and Warid brand names during the reporting period, merging them under the name Jazz to control the country’s largest mobile subscriber base.55 Jazz’s main competitors are Pak Telecom Mobile Limited (PTML), which is a PTCL subsidiary operating as Ufone (market share of 13 percent), Telenor Pakistan (market share of 29 percent), which is part of a Norwegian multinational company, and China Mobile Pakistan (CMPak), with a market share of 21 percent).56

The Special Communications Organization (SCO), a public-sector organization under the MoITT that is managed by the army, provides mobile service in the territories of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), due to security concerns and difficult terrain.57 Seven operational LDI licenses58 and one operational FLL license59 have been issued for AJK and GB, which lack provincial status due to a long-running border dispute with India. In a worrying development, in October 2017, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology approved a proposal to allow the SCO “to operate commercially and compete with the private telecom operators.”60 This move will mark the entry of a state-funded and military-run company into the telecom sector at the national level, raising concerns about the potential threat it poses to competition, as well as the privacy of users. The decision has also been opposed by leaders in the private sector.61

Internet cafes on the whole do not require a license to operate, and opening one is relatively easy.62 Child rights groups have argued that cafes should be regulated to prevent children’s access to pornography and gambling sites. 63 In February 2017, the provincial Sindh government issued a ban on all internet cafes “without a proper video surveillance and recording system.”64 Local owners are now “required to keep copies of all users’ Computerized National Identity Cards, along with recording their cabin numbers and usage time.”65

Regulatory Bodies

The PTA is the regulatory body for the internet and mobile industry, and internet freedom advocates and human rights groups have expressed concerns about its lack of transparency and independence.66 The prime minister appoints the chair and members of the three-person authority, which reports to the MoITT.67

October 17, 1996,

The PTA plays an active role in implementing policies that undermine internet freedom. In March 2015, the PTA formally took responsibility for internet content management (see Blocking and Filtering). The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) codified those powers, and also authorized the PTA to develop “rules of business” regarding the investigations of cybercrimes. However, by mid-2018, the PTA had not yet produced any new rules, or shown transparency in the drafting process. Rules are needed to regulate the mode and quality of investigations, a major issue affecting the law’s implementation.

B Limits on Content

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act authorizes the PTA to undertake content management. Blocking of political content without transparency continued during the reporting period. Other platforms, media, and communication tools are popular and contribute to a vibrant online space. However, concerted steps have been taken to crack down on content the government judges to be antistate and blasphemous. During the lead-up to the July 2018 elections, online spaces were sometimes used to spread disinformation.

Blocking and Filtering

Access to political, religious, and social content online is limited through PTA orders to service providers, as well as through technical filtering technologies. The government blocks content relating to news, human rights, content critical of Islam, as well as sex and nudity, and circumvention and privacy tools.1 According to a study carried out by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Bytes for All Pakistan, 210 URLs were blocked by 22 ISPs between 2014 and 2017.2

PECA, passed in August 2016, gives the government broad blocking powers (see Legal Environment). Section 37 grants the PTA expansive powers to block or remove any online content that it deems unlawful, “if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offense under this Act.” Critics contend that such a wide mandate to restrict online speech violates Pakistan’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).3

In February 2018, the PTA invited applications for the development of a Web Management Solution that would identify and block content that the PECA deemed illegal.4 Fears have been raised regarding the human rights and internet freedom implications of such a project.

Apart from PECA, other regulatory provisions have long enabled politically-motivated censorship of dissenting voices and information perceived as damaging to the military or political elites. Broad provisions in the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act support censorship for the protection of national security or religious reasons.5 A Telecommunications Policy approved in 2015 utilized similar language. Section 9.8.3 enabled the PTA to “monitor and manage content including any blasphemous and pornographic material in conflict with the principles of Islamic way of life as reflected in the Objectives Resolution and Article 31 of the Constitution,” as well as material that is considered to be “detrimental to national security, or any other category stipulated in any other law.”28 Section 99 of the penal code separately allows the government to restrict information that might be prejudicial to the national interest.6


In April 2018, news website NayaDaur was blocked in Pakistan for over a week before the PTA restored it. No reason for the blocking was provided by the government, but it followed the online publication of an article sympathetic to the Pashtun human rights movement.7 This is not the first time a website has been blocked for critiquing the state. In early 2018, a media blackout of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a grassroots civil rights movement, was ordered at the behest of the military establishment. There have been several instances of opinion articles relating to the PTM being removed from newspapers’ websites.8 The Twitter account of the leader of the PTM, Manzoor Pashteen, was suspended for a few hours in April 2018. The account was restored after supporters of the movement expressed outrage on social media.9 No reason was given for the suspension.

Social media applications and the websites of most news channels were blocked briefly in November 2017 throughout the country, due to what the government claimed were security concerns (see Restrictions on Connectivity). Platforms have also been blocked in the past, notably when the government blocked YouTube from December 2012 until January 2016 in response to the anti-Islamic video “The Innocence of Muslims.”10

In August 2016, the government banned websites operated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party based in Sindh province, and said it would take steps to remove affiliated social media accounts after the party’s exiled leader delivered what officials and news reports characterized as an “anti-Pakistan” speech.11 The authorities accused MQM activists of launching a violent attack on a TV station in Karachi, but the party denied responsibility and said the army was using the attack to justify a crackdown on its membership.12 The party’s official website remained blocked in mid-2018. Political dissent and secessionist movements in areas including Baluchistan and Sindh province have been subject to systematic censorship for years.13 In 2017, at least nine Facebook pages allegedly propagating antistate activities were blocked at the request of the PTA. The identified pages belonged to Baloch and Sindhi nationalist groups.14

Nonpolitical content is also routinely affected by blocking and filtering. Censorship targeting pornography can restrict access to health information and other legitimate content like Scarleteen, a U.S.-based sex education website for teenagers.15 In early 2016, the PTA ordered ISPs to block 429,343 supposedly pornographic websites, but the list and how it was vetted was not publicized.16

As a condition of their licenses, ISPs and backbone providers must restrict access to individual URLs or IP addresses upon receipt of a blocking order.17 Since 2012, successive administrations have sought to move from less sophisticated manual blocking towards technical filtering,18; National ICT Research and Development Fund, “Request for Proposal: National URL Filtering and Blocking System,” accessed

August 2012,; “PTA determined to block websites with ‘objectionable’ content,” The Express Tribune, March 9,

2012,; Anwer Abbas, “PTA, IT Ministry at Odds Over Internet Censorship System,” Pakistan Today, January 3, 2013,

ApurvaChaudhary, “Pakistan To Unblock YouTube After Building Filtering Mechanism,” Medianama, January 10, 2013,; Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, “The Saga of YouTube Ban,” Pakistan Press Foundation, January 2, 2013,; “Ministry Wants Treaty, Law to Block Blasphemous Content,” The News, March 28, 2013,

Associated Press of Pakistan, “IT Minister plans to ban 'objectionable content' across entire internet,” The Express Tribune, despite widespread civil society protests.19 In 2013, the University of Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab reported that technology developed by the Canadian company Netsweeper was filtering political and social content at the national level on the PTCL network.20

Regime. “In addition to using Netsweeper technology to block websites, ISPs also use other less transparent methods, such as DNS tampering,” Citizen Lab noted, highlighting the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding censorship.21

Despite its flaws, PECA introduced some stronger requirements for transparency and accountability. Section 37(2) requires that rules are drafted that will ensure a transparent and effective oversight mechanism for blocking or removing online content, but these had yet to be issued during the coverage period.

Content Removal

State and other actors are known to exert extralegal pressure on publishers and content producers to remove content, but these instances frequently go unreported, and the processes involved are not clear.

The government has succeeded in getting international companies to remove content in Pakistan. In July 2017, a delegation from Facebook met with the interior minister, who lobbied the social media company to cooperate in removing content deemed blasphemous. Observers have pointed out that in return for Facebook’s cooperation, the government will facilitate Facebook’s Free Basics Program, which may violate net neutrality principles.22

From July to December 2017, Facebook provided data for 59 percent of the 1,320 government requests.23 In the same period, 301 pieces of content were removed by Facebook at the behest of the PTA.24 In recent years, there has been an increase in content removal; From January to June 2016, there were 25 removals, while there were 117 from January to June 2017.25

From July to December 2017, Pakistan made a total of 27 requests to Google seeking the removal of 259 pieces of content. Of the removal requests, 52 percent were related to religious offenses or blasphemous content.26

Political content continued to be blocked without transparency during the reporting period. In May 2018, Facebook complied with a government request to remove a Facebook post from Dawn, a leading newspaper. The post included a report of a politician criticizing the military. The content was removed “based on local law” and is still accessible outside of Pakistan.27

Section 38 of PECA limits civil or criminal liability for service providers for content posted by users, unless it is proven that the service provider had “specific actual knowledge and willful intent to proactively and positively participate” in cybercrimes committed under the act. Pakistan previously lacked explicit intermediary liability protections, though experts expressed concern about making intermediary liability contingent on the vague standards implied by terms like “willful.”28

Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation

Despite content restrictions, most Pakistanis have access to international news organizations and other independent media, as well as a range of websites representing political parties, local civil society groups, and international human rights organizations.29 There are no major economic constraints on digital media outlets intended to prevent them from publishing independent political news and opinion, though some struggle to stay financially viable.

ICTs, particularly mobile phones, promote social mobilization. Since YouTube was unblocked, social networking, blogging, and voice-over-IP (VoIP) applications have been available and widely used. In September 2016, opportunities were extended to Pakistani content creators as the localized version of YouTube,, announced that it would allow them to benefit from monetized partner videos.30

Nevertheless, most online commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, civil-military relations, separatist movements, and women’s and other minority communities’ rights.31

There have been no documented examples of cybertroopers paid to distort the online landscape, but some individuals have sought to discredit others online, often by accusing them of blasphemy, a criminal offense which carries a death penalty (see Legal Environment). The blasphemy campaigns often appear coordinated. In one example from the reporting period, social media users poisoned hashtags being used to rally support for missing bloggers, accusing them of blasphemy (see Digital Activism). Separately, a student was murdered in reprisal for alleged blasphemy, shortly after he reported that someone was impersonating him with a fake account on social media (see Intimidation and Violence).

In the lead up to the July 2018 election, each major political party had a social media team campaigning online.32 Bots supporting certain political parties also surfaced online. According to a May 2018 report in the News International, 52 percent of accounts tweeting #PMLN, associated with the popular party, were bots, while another 46 percent of accounts using #PTI, another political party, were as well.33

Social media campaigns purporting false information have also had negative repercussions in offline spaces. For example, online propaganda and misinformation have hindered efforts to fight polio.34 Misinformation has fueled rumors that health workers are spies and the polio vaccine contains swine, and, in some cases, has led to parents refusing to have their children vaccinated.

Digital Activism

Human rights activists have galvanized public support using digital technology, including on internet freedom issues. Some have achieved limited success, and may have discouraged officials from adopting even more restrictive measures. Yet there is still significant resistance at the institutional level to grassroots campaigns, which limits the effectiveness of digital activism. Digital activism before the passage of the PECA in 2016, for example, failed to prevent problematic provisions from being adopted (see Legal Environment).

One online campaign during the coverage period was to recover abducted activists, including Raza Khan who went missing in December 2017. The hashtag #FindRaza was used to highlight his abduction and call for his return.35 Despite facing a complete blackout on print and electronic media, the PTM was able to maintain momentum on social media and mobilize its rallies across the country.36

The global #MeToo movement has also been extensively used by feminists and women’s rights activists to expose the sexual misconduct of powerful men in Pakistan. However, online accusations have also opened some women up to defamation lawsuits.37

In a statement that appeared to narrow one potential avenue for digital activism, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan said in March 2017 that “crowd funding is not allowed in Pakistan.”38 The statement was issued to highlight activity by a single fraudulent website, but stated that “no company can raise funds” through crowd funding.

C Violations of User Rights

User rights continued to be violated during the coverage period, including two murders in response to online speech, and the abductions of five bloggers. Civil society groups say that PECA criminalizes legitimate online activity, and more problematic prosecutions based on allegations of online blasphemy were reported.

Legal Environment

Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution establishes freedom of speech as a fundamental right, although it is subject to several broad restrictions.1 Pakistan became a signatory to the ICCPR in 2010.2

Several laws have the potential to restrict the rights of internet users, including one passed during the coverage period. In August 2016, PECA became law, despite concerns from civil society organizations regarding the lack of transparency involved in the drafting process. Though it contains some procedural safeguards for cybercrime investigations by law enforcement agencies, international and local human rights groups condemned the law’s overly broad language and disproportionate penalties, including a 14-year prison term for acts of cyberterrorism that the law failed to adequately define.3 The law also punishes preparing or disseminating electronic communication to glorify terrorism; and preparing or disseminating information that is likely to advance religious, ethnic or sectarian hatred; both crimes are punishable with up to seven years in prison. Section 20 criminalizes displaying or transmitting information that intimidates or harms the “reputation or privacy of a natural person” with a maximum three-year prison term or a fine of PKR 1 million (US$9,500) or both.4 The law also granted the PTA broad censorship powers (see Blocking and Filtering), and raised privacy concerns (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).

The law’s harsh penalties were cause for particular concern in light of recent sentences passed by antiterrorism courts for online speech. Furthermore, secret military courts were established in 2015 through the 21st amendment to the constitution, which was set to lapse in January 2017 until the National Assembly and Senate approved a two-year extension.5

Other procedural concerns about PECA’s implementation have been raised. In October 2016, news reports said the government had “accepted a proposal by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to let its operatives take preemptive action against individuals and organizations breaching national security under the recently enacted cybercrime laws.”6 This would effectively authorize the ISI to act unilaterally in cybercrime investigations considered relevant to national security.

In December 2017, the cabinet approved an amendment to add sections relating to blasphemy and pornography to PECA.7 IHC had originally issued directions to add these offenses to the law.8 Child pornography was already an offense under PECA (section 22), and sections from the Pakistan Penal Code were used to try cases of blasphemy in online spaces. A draft amendment presented to the court in February 2018 included provisions to punish false accusations of blasphemy as well.9 The amendments were not passed by parliament during the coverage period.

In January 2018, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), tasked with investigating and prosecuting cybercrime, requested parliament to make more offenses cognizable and nonbailable. These offenses “included access, modification, interference, deletion to critical infrastructure, information system or data (sections 6,7, and 8), electronic forgery (section 13), electronic fraud (section 14), unauthorized issuance of SIM cards (section 17), tampering of electronic equipment (section 18), cyberstalking (section 24), and spoofing (section 26).”10 Digital rights groups believe that, if approved, the move will reduce the procedural safeguards in place to ensure checks and balances on the FIA.

Sections of the penal code that cover blasphemy, including 295(c), which imposes a mandatory death sentence, are frequently invoked to limit freedom of expression and in many cases involve electronic media (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities). In March 2017, the IHC ruled that those accused of posting blasphemous content on social media should be barred from leaving the country until their name is cleared.11 Any citizen can file a blasphemy complaint against any other, leaving the accused vulnerable to violent reprisals regardless of whether the complaint has foundation. Human rights groups report that the law lacks safeguards to prevent abuse to settle personal vendettas.12

Other laws threaten online speech. Sections 36 and 37 of the Electronic Transaction Ordinance of 2002 punish “violations of privacy of information” and “damage to information systems,” respectively. The 2002 Defamation Ordinance can impose prison sentences of up to five years. PECA effectively replaced the ordinances, but they were still invoked during the reporting period, and some older cases were also ongoing. Section 124 of the penal code on sedition is broadly worded, and covers acts of sedition “by words” or “visible representation,” which could include digital speech, though it has not yet been applied to an online context.13 The Surveying and Mapping Act 2014 limits digital mapping activity to organizations registered with Survey of Pakistan, a government authority, with federal permission required for collaborating with foreign companies.14; Pakistan National Assembly, Bill to provide for constitution and regulation of Survey of Pakistan, No.

225/25/2012, November 14, 2012,

Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities

People are frequently prosecuted for their online activities, and sometimes receive harsh sentences, including the death penalty in two cases during the coverage period.

In June 2017, a man was sentenced to death for blasphemy after posting comments about the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook.15 The man’s lawyer reported that he would appeal the ruling.16 In September 2017, a Christian man was sentenced to death for blasphemy after sending a poem on WhatsApp to a Muslim friend that was critical of Islam.17 At the end of the reporting period, his appeal was still pending.18

Others were also on trial for blasphemy on social media at the end of the reporting period.19 For example, in February 2018, seventeen-year-old Patris Masih was arrested for allegedly posting blasphemous content on social media. The arrest came amidst pressure from Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) and other religious parties.20 The accused and his twenty-four-year-old cousin, Sajid Masih, were taken into the custody of the FIA, where they were allegedly subjected to sexual assault and torture. Sajid subsequently jumped from the fourth floor of the FIA building and was critically injured.21

Political speech has also been subject to legal action. In December 2016, the FIA detained three bloggers for allegedly sharing images of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with a politician incorrectly identified as a judge.22 The image was perceived as an attempt to malign the judiciary. No formal charges were pressed, according to official statements.

Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity

PECA grants overly broad surveillance powers, both to agencies within Pakistan, and potentially to foreign governments, since it includes provisions that permit the sharing of data with international agencies without adequate oversight.23 Section 32 requires service providers to retain traffic data for a minimum of one year, and allows for that period to be extended with a warrant issued by a court. Furthermore, new regulations introduced in March 2018 require all Wi-Fi hotspot service providers to retain user data. This data includes the user’s name, national identity number/passport number, mobile phone number, time of login and logoff, IP address, MAC address, and internet access log.24

There is currently no data protection law in Pakistan, despite assurances from the government that it would pass a law during the coverage period.25 As a result of this lack of oversight, ISPs and mobile companies are not obliged to maintain or comply with data protection policies.26 Data collected by the state’s National Database Registration Authority (NADRA), which maintains a centralized repository of information about citizens, is not subject to any transparent privacy rules.27 These rules are currently in their draft stage, but are expected to be implemented in the near future.

Several data breaches of the central national database occurred during the coverage period. Data from NADRA and telecom companies, as well as police records, are reportedly sold online, including on Facebook.28 Given the centralized and interconnected nature of Pakistan’s national database, data is vulnerable when it moves from one department to another.29

The lack of data protection laws also means that private enterprises are not obligated to ensure data security. In November 2017, female students of Dow University of Health and Sciences were harassed online after their admission forms, and all the personal information contained in them, were leaked.30

Government surveillance is a concern for activists, bloggers, and media representatives, as well as ordinary internet users. Pakistani law enforcement and intelligence agencies appear to have expanded their monitoring activities, including at the local level, ostensibly to curb terrorism and violent crime.31 In 2015, the UK-based NGO Privacy International reported that the Pakistani government’s surveillance capabilities, particularly those of the ISI, outstrips domestic and international legal regulation.32 “Mass network surveillance has been in place in Pakistan since at least 2005,” using technology obtained “from both domestic and foreign surveillance companies, including Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8 and Utimaco,” according to the report.

A separate 2013 report by Citizen Lab indicated that Pakistani citizens may be vulnerable to FinFisher spyware, which collects data such as Skype audio, key logs, and screenshots. 33 The analysis found FinFisher’s command and control servers in 36 countries worldwide, including on the PTCL network in Pakistan, but did not confirm that actors in Pakistan are knowingly taking advantage of its capabilities. In 2014, however, hackers released internal FinFisher documents indicating that a client identified as “Customer 32” licensed software from FinFisher to infect Microsoft Office documents with malware to steal files from target computers in Pakistan.34

The Fair Trial Act, passed in 2013,35 allows security agencies to seek a judicial warrant to monitor private communications “to neutralize and prevent a threat or any attempt to carry out scheduled offences.” It covers information sent from or received in Pakistan, or between Pakistani citizens, whether they are resident in the country or not. Under the law, service providers face a one-year jail term or a fine of up to PKR 10 million (US$103,000) for failing to cooperate with warrants. Warrants can be issued if a law enforcement official has “reason to believe” there is a risk of terrorism; warrants can also be temporarily waived by intelligence agencies. A 2014 white paper issued by the Digital Rights Group said that provisions of the Fair Trial Act contravene the constitution and international treaties that Pakistan has signed. 36

Waqqas Mir, et al. “Digital Surveillance Laws in Pakistan,” eds. Carly Nyst and Nighat Dad, (a white paper by Digital Rights Foundation,

November 2011)

ISPs, telecommunications companies, and SIM card vendors are required to authenticate the Computerized National Identity Card details of prospective customers with NADRA before providing service.37 A reregistration drive was launched following a 2014 terrorist attack on a school that was reportedly facilitated by mobile phones with unregistered SIM cards,38 and the government added a biometric thumb impression to the registration requirements for SIM cards.39 In 2015, those who failed to meet the new requirement were warned of automatic disconnection, and 26 million SIM cards were subsequently blocked.40

Pakistanis are also vulnerable to surveillance from overseas intelligence agencies. In June 2015, The Intercept published revelations of hacking and infiltration of the PIE by the UK’s GCHQ intelligence agency prior to 2008. According to The Intercept, this gave GCHQ “access to almost any user of the internet inside Pakistan” and the ability to “re-route selected traffic across international links towards GCHQ's passive collection systems.”41

International cooperation on surveillance has also increased since the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Technology such as surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology has been shared as part of various safe cities initiatives.42 While these initiatives are framed by the government as measures to protect public safety, the increase in surveillance infrastructure without meaningful safeguards concerns human rights activists.

In early 2018, PKR 24.2 million (US$196,000) were allocated for establishing a “Cyber Patrolling Unit,” to be run by the FIA.43 The unit aims to curb online child pornography.44 Concerns have been raised about the unit’s integration with NADRA, which some critics believe could lead to the sharing of personal data and potential data breaches. In May 2018, the government announced the establishment of the National Cyber Terrorism Security Investigation Agency to counter hate speech and extremist content online.45

Intimidation and Violence

Intimidation and violence remained a problem during the reporting period and there was an uptick in prosecutions for online harassment against women. Torture and sexual abuse while in detention is still reported in Pakistan.

In April 2018, the first conviction for online harassment under PECA was secured.46 In January 2018, the FIA arrested a man who threatened a human rights activist on social media.47

In January 2017, five bloggers known to have criticized the establishment, the military, or religious militancy, separately went missing from different parts of the country within a few days of each other.48 Four of them were recovered after they made contact with their families around the end of January 2017.49 The fifth, Samar Abbas, had yet to return at the end of May 2018. Police have said that no progress had been made on the case.50 The government denied any involvement in the abductions, but in March 2017, one of the recovered activists told the BBC that he had been held by a “’government institution’ with links to the military” and subjected to torture while he was missing.51

In April 2017, Mashal Khan, a student of journalism in Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, was murdered by a mob for allegedly “publishing blasphemous content online.”52 No evidence of any such content was subsequently found,53 and news reports said Khan had notified his contacts on Facebook the previous December that someone was operating a fake account in his name.54

Women have also been murdered for digital activities in so-called honor killings. In July 2016, Qandeel Baloch, a social media celebrity known for openly expressing her sexuality, was killed by her brother.55 Baloch had sought police protection following threats she received after her real identity was published online.56 Her brother acknowledged killing her because “she was doing videos on Facebook and dishonoring the family name.” He was arrested, along with three other family members accused of carrying out or facilitating the murder, and pleaded not guilty. The accused were required to stand trial under new laws; families were previously allowed to forgive the assailants in honor killings to avoid prosecution.57

Many people also report being intimidated on digital platforms via leaking explicit photos and threats of blackmail. In January 2017, Naila Rind, a student at the University of Sindh Jamshoro, died by suicide after receiving blackmail threats on her mobile phone.58 While PECA criminalized blackmail using digital tools, the lack of support for victims means cases are seldom reported.59 Free expression activists and bloggers have also reported receiving death threats online, and Pakistan is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for traditional journalists.60

Technical Attacks

Technical attacks against the websites of NGOs, opposition groups, and activists are common in Pakistan, though many go unreported. During the coverage period, reports of digital attacks on human rights defenders were uncovered by Amnesty International. Attacks came in the form of hacking accounts and devices, and the installation of spyware to monitor and conduct surveillance. The attackers allegedly employed fake online identities and social media profiles to target activists.61 The software used in these attacks is called Crimson; the malware has previously been used to target Indian military and diplomatic figures.62

In January and April 2017, Dawn News, a leading English-language newspaper, revealed that its website was subjected to sustained cyberattacks.63 Dawn had reported aggressively on the apparently enforced disappearances of bloggers and on civil-military relations.

The websites of government agencies are also commonly attacked, often by hackers attempting to make a political statement.64 In 2015, the website of the religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami was hacked for its alleged support of terrorists.65

Cross-border cyberattacks between Pakistan and India remain prevalent.66 As tensions escalated between the two states in early 2017, hackers claimed to have compromised crucial state websites on both sides of the border. Among the most serious was a claim that Indian hackers had targeted Pakistani airports in Islamabad, Peshawar, Multan, and Karachi.67

On Pakistan

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    37 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    26 100 not free