Not Free
A Obstacles to Access 5 25
B Limits on Content 13 35
C Violations of User Rights 8 40
Last Year's Score & Status
26 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Internet freedom remained constricted during the coverage period as the Pakistani government imposed digital controls amid an escalating confrontation between former prime minister Imran Khan and the powerful military establishment. Authorities routinely use internet shutdowns, platform blocking, and arrests and harsh convictions to suppress unwanted online speech, both under the former Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government and under the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the coalition that immediately succeeded it in office. Online activists, dissidents, and journalists are often subjected to harassment by supporters of the PDM coalition and the PTI, including some cases of physical assault and enforced disappearances.

Pakistan holds regular elections under a competitive multiparty political system, although the government has delayed an election scheduled for October 2023. The military exerts enormous influence over security and foreign policy issues, as well as other issues. The authorities impose selective restrictions on civil liberties, and Islamist militants carry out attacks on religious minorities and other perceived opponents.

Editor’s Note: Pakistani Kashmir is not covered in this report. Certain territories that are assessed separately in Freedom House's Freedom in the World report are excluded from the relevant country reports in Freedom on the Net, as conditions in such territories differ significantly from those in the rest of the country.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2022 – May 31, 2023

  • Catastrophic flooding and an economic crisis impeded people’s access to the internet (see A1 and A2).
  • The government restricted access to the internet and blocked social media platforms to impede expressions of support for former prime minister Imran Khan, including by imposing a four-day internet shutdown in May 2023 (see A3 and B1).
  • False and misleading information about the political crisis surged online, including information shared by Khan and other prominent political figures (see B5).
  • A man was sentenced to death for blasphemy over his WhatsApp activities in November 2022, and several others faced ongoing death penalty convictions in online blasphemy cases (see C3).
  • Journalist Imran Riaz was disappeared by security forces in May 2023 during a broad crackdown on PTI supporters and workers; he was returned in September (see C3 and C7).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 1.001 6.006

Internet penetration in Pakistan has increased at a steady rate. As of April 2023, internet penetration stood at 53.8 percent, compared to 53.1 percent in May 2022, according to data from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).1 Mobile internet penetration rates stood at 52.47 percent as of April 2023, compared to 51.73 percent in the previous coverage period.2 According to data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), fixed-line broadband penetration sits at just over 1 percent as of 2021.3

According to speed-testing company Ookla, Pakistan’s median mobile internet download speed was 16.34 megabits per second (Mbps) in April 2023. Median fixed-line broadband download speed stood at 11.22 Mbps.4 Infrastructural limitations are acute in rural localities, limiting broadband access. Lack of high-speed internet is a perennial problem in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, regions that have special status due to border disputes with India and are not covered in this report.5

Pakistan relies on a few submarine cables for internet access. Damaged or inadequate infrastructure periodically disrupts access. Internet users experienced slowed speed or disruptions throughout the coverage period, including twice in November 2022, due to faults in the South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 5 (SMW5) submarine cable.6 Damage to fiber-optic cables within Pakistan can also cause disruptions, as in June 2022, when cable malfunction impacted internet services in the Northern Areas.7

Catastrophic floods struck Pakistan between June and October 2022, leaving hundreds dead and also disrupting connectivity. The floods took over 3,000 cell sites offline,8 including on state-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) fiber networks,9 particularly in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,10 regions that already face connectivity issues due to sparse infrastructure in the provinces. Restoration of services took weeks in some areas, significantly impacting critical relief efforts.11 According to the PTA, as of December 2022, 13 cell sites in five districts of Balochistan and 87 sites in 12 districts of Sindh remained nonfunctional.12

Power outages are a serious problem in Pakistan, especially during the summer,13 and prevent individuals from accessing routers and charging their devices.14 Power outages and connectivity disruptions were more common than in previous coverage periods due to rising fuel prices15 and a wider economic crisis.16 A grid failure in January 2023 resulted in a nationwide power outage that lasted nearly a day, led to the shutdown of mobile phone towers, and impacted nearly 220 million people.17 A technical fault in the national grid in October 2022 led to another nationwide power outage that largely impacted connectivity in Balochistan, Sindh, and Punjab and lasted several hours.18 In June 2022, telecommunications providers had warned the PTA that prolonged electricity issues might disrupt internet access.19

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 0.000 3.003

There are serious geographic, gender, and socioeconomic inequalities in access to information and communications technology (ICTs). Though mobile data costs have fallen in recent years, new taxes and runaway inflation during the coverage period restricted internet affordability further. 1

According to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT), the average price for 1 gigabyte (GB) of mobile data was 110 rupees ($0.69) in 2020,2 while found the average price to be $0.36 as of May 2022.3 The Finance (Supplementary) Act, 2023, which was passed in February 2023 under stipulations from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), increased the sales tax on mobile phones from 17 to 25 percent on phones worth more than $500 and from 17 to 18 percent on phones worth between $200 and $350. These additional costs may inhibit people’s access to mobile internet.4 reports that the average monthly cost of broadband in Pakistan was $14.86 as of 2023,5 an amount that is prohibitive for many Pakistanis.6

Disparities in internet access and infrastructure are severe between different regions of the country. Many parts of Balochistan lack internet connectivity, and in areas where there was coverage, mobile internet speeds were lower than the national average.7 The PTA lifted restrictions on internet services in some parts of the country during the coverage period (see A3). Furthermore, the PTA plans to implement national roaming8 in parts of Balochistan experiencing connectivity issues by June 2023; however, it was unclear how much progress has been made on implementation by the end of the coverage period.9

There have been some government initiatives to provide internet access to remote areas. A 2006 amendment to the Pakistan Telecommunication (Reorganization) Act established the Universal Service Fund (USF) to provide access to telecommunication services for people in unserved, underserved, rural, and remote areas. According to its website, the USF has launched projects to install high-speed internet in underserved areas of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and has completed infrastructure construction in Southern Punjab, Sindh, parts of Balochistan, and northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.10 In 2021 and 2022, the USF implemented 36 projects worth 30.2 billion rupees ($368 million). In September 2022, the USF awarded 10 contracts worth 21 billion rupees ($22.9 million) for projects that will provide connectivity to approximately 3.5 million people in underserved areas of Balochistan.11 It was reported in April 2023 that 40 percent of USF’s funds were being spent on broadband development in Balochistan.12

Facebook’s Free Basics program has been available for several years on multiple telecommunications networks in the country,13 including Zong and Telenor.14 However, the program runs contrary to the principles of net neutrality by creating differential access to content based on income levels. In January 2022, leaked documents revealed that Facebook’s programs pass on some charges to users accessing their services without notice.15

Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and conservative cultural norms have also created inequalities in how Pakistanis access the internet.16 The digital divide between men and women in Pakistan is among the highest in the world; religious, social, and cultural norms discourage women from owning devices.17 According to the GSMA, women were 33 percent less likely than men to own a mobile device and 38 percent less likely to use the internet as of June 2022.18 The PTA reports that out of 114.4 million mobile internet subscribers, only 26.4 million are women.19 A 2021 report by Media Matters for Democracy found that six of every 10 Pakistani women are likely to have their internet usage restricted, monitored, or controlled by family members.20 Women who are active online report high levels of harassment that discourage greater use of ICTs (see C7). Women and people who are not cisgender face additional institutional barriers to connecting to the internet, such as difficulties in obtaining identity cards, which are prerequisites for acquiring SIM cards (see C4).21 The USF has launched some projects for gender inclusion,22 and in February 2022 the PTA announced a public-private partnership aimed at reducing the gender divide in digital access.23 In March and April 2022, the PTA signed agreements with UNESCO and GSMA focused on reducing the digital gender divide.24 The impact of these initiatives has yet to be assessed.

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 1.001 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the government restricted access to the internet and social media platforms in May 2023 amid protests over the detention of former prime minister Imran Khan.

Authorities frequently disrupt telecommunication services during protests,1 elections,2 and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns.

In May 2023, authorities restricted mobile and broadband internet for four days following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan.3 The government blocked Facebook, Twitter (now known as X), and YouTube during the same period, amidst widespread protests by PTI supporters.4 Mobile and broadband services were reportedly affected outside Imran Khan’s Lahore residence in March 2023 as the government attempted to execute arrest warrants against him.5 Mobile services were also intermittently suspended during PTI’s “long march” in October 2022.6

Internet services were suspended for long periods of time due to “security reasons” in Gwadar, Balochistan, Swat, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In January 2023, internet services in Gwadar were shut down for 10 days after clashes between the police and protestors demonstrating against the lack of basic facilities under the banner "Give Gwadar its Rights."7 In October 2022, mobile and broadband services were also shut down for over one month in parts of Swat: the PTA cited reported increases in militancy in the area as the reason for the disruption.8

During the previous coverage period, there were several reports of internet throttling during countrywide protests by supporters of the PTI,9 though the reports were denied by the PTA.10

The PTA suspended mobile services during processions on the ninth and tenth days of the month of Muharram along procession routes across the country and in adjoining areas, citing “protective” measures.11 Mobile internet services were similarly suspended on orders from the PTA in some parts of Karachi due to Eid Milad-un-Nabi in October 2022.12 Mobile services were also partly suspended in Quetta during Chehlum in September 2022.13

Long-term shutdowns have been implemented in restive border regions, including one lasting more than five years in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), now incorporated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.14 Mobile services were periodically suspended in parts of the former FATA, including Lakki Marwat and Bannu, for “counter-terrorism” operations during the coverage period.15 Census workers reportedly faced difficulties collecting results in South Waziristan due to internet disruptions in early 2023.16

Officials restored internet services in some parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the previous coverage period. The process of restoration is piecemeal, and services have not been fully restored, particularly in the districts bordering Afghanistan.17

Section 54 of the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act grants authorities the power to suspend internet services. While the law as written may only be invoked during a state of emergency, in practice it has been used to justify routine shutdowns, prompting several court cases in which the courts have reaffirmed the PTA’s authority to suspend services.18 In February 2018, the Islamabad High Court held that mobile network shutdowns on the pretext of public safety by the PTA infringed upon the fundamental rights of citizens and were illegal, though the court suspended the judgment temporarily to allow internet suspensions during the Pakistan Day parade the following month.19 In April 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to suspend mobile networks.20

The state exerts considerable influence over the internet backbone. The predominantly state-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) controls the country’s largest internet exchange point, the Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE), which has three main nodes—in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore—and 42 smaller nodes nationwide. The PIE operated the nation’s sole internet backbone until 2009, when additional bandwidth was offered by TransWorld Associates on its private fiber-optic cable, TW1.21 In March 2023, German company DE-CIX signed an agreement with PTCL to establish an internet exchange (IX) in Pakistan.22

PTCL also controls access to five international undersea fiber-optic cables: Southeast Asia–Middle East–Western Europe (SEA-ME-WE) 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4; India–Middle East–Western Europe (I-ME-WE);23 and the Asia-Africa-Europe-1 (AAE-1) cable system, which was built as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.24 The Pakistan & East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) fiber-optic cable was completed in September 2022.25 In July 2020, the Pak-China fiber-optic cable, running from Rawalpindi to Khunjerab, became active; the project is owned by the military-run Special Communications Organization,26 and plans are underway to extend it to other parts of the country.27 The internet rights group Bolo Bhi has raised concerns regarding the dangers of terrestrial cables between Pakistan and China, given China’s highly restrictive internet model.28

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 3.003 6.006

Pakistan has a combination of private and publicly run service providers. The PTA, the government regulator, exerts significant control over internet and mobile providers through hefty licensing fees and various bureaucratic processes1 —powers it is granted under section 5(2)(a) of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996. 2

According to licensing information published by the PTA, in 2023, there were four primary mobile operators in Pakistan. Telenor Pakistan, Pakistan Mobile Communication Limited (PMCL, or Jazz), Pak Telecom Mobile Limited (PTML, or Ufone), and China Mobile Pakistan (CMPak, or Zong) all provide services countrywide.3 The market in Azad Jammu,Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan is slightly different as there are six mobile service operators and providers: Telenor, Jazz, Ufone, CMPak, Warid, and the military-run Special Communications Organization (SCO).4

Jazz had a majority market share of 37.6 percent as of April 2023; their main competitors are PTML, which is a PTCL subsidiary operating as Ufone, with a 12.58 percent market share; Telenor Pakistan, part of a Norwegian multinational company, with a 24.9 percent market share; and CMPak, with a market share of 24 percent.5 The military-owned SCO has 0.85 percent of the market share.

Furthermore, there are 10 licensed wireless local loop (WLL) operators and 19 long-distance and international (LDI) operators in Pakistan.6 Several licenses had also been issued for companies providing value-added services in the telecommunications sector.7

The predominantly state-owned PTCL has long dominated the broadband market.8 The Broadband Policy, which aimed to encourage investment in broadband infrastructure and greater connectivity, was last issued by the PTA in 2004,9 though there were assurances in July 2021 by the federal government that a new broadband policy would be issued soon.10 The policy has yet to materialize, but the consultation drafts shared by the MOITT have been criticized for being inadequate.11 The last draft for consultation was issued in early 2022. In May 2022, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) imposed regulations requiring a 100 percent cash margin restriction on service providers. The PTA and industry experts raised concerns that the regulations will adversely impact network expansion efforts in Pakistan.12

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

The PTA is the regulatory body for the internet and mobile industry. It plays an active role in implementing the various policies that undermine internet freedom and is responsible for removing content without transparency and for instituting wholesale bans on platforms. Internet freedom advocates and human rights groups have expressed concerns about the PTA’s lack of transparency and independence,1 as well as its broad powers over online content and the licensing of service providers.

The prime minister appoints the chair and members of the three-person authority, which reports to the MOITT.2 Under section 8 of the 1996 Pakistan Telecommunications Act, the federal government has the powers to issue policy directives regarding the work and functions of the PTA. The current chair of the PTA is retired major general Hafeezur Rehman.3 It is common government practice to appoint retired military personnel as the heads of government departments as part of the military’s efforts to expand its regulatory capacity in most spheres of Pakistani governance.

In March 2015, the PTA formally took responsibility for internet content management. This power was also consolidated through the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) and the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021.4 There has been a lack of transparency and oversight of the PTA as regards its powers, granted under section 37 of the PECA, to block and remove online content (see B3).

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 1.001 6.006

Authorities frequently block content that is critical of Islam or the military, content that is deemed a threat to national security, sites that host pornography or nudity, and sites related to or offering circumvention and privacy tools, in addition to other political and social content.1

The PTA reported in January 2023 that it had blocked over 1.1 million links and websites for being unlawful, over 900,000 of which were blocked on the basis of “decency and morality.” Other justifications for blocking included “glory of Islam,” “sectarian/hate speech,” and “defence of Pakistan.”2 In January 2023, the federal minister for information technology asserted that the PTA had also blocked 6,418 URLs for spreading “fake news.”3 Since there is no publicly available list of blocked websites published by the PTA, information about blockings is often anecdotal and accessible only on a case-by-case basis.

The PTA blocked Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for nearly a full week in May 2023 following the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan4 on the orders of the Ministry of Interior.5 Access to YouTube was intermittently disrupted in August and September 20226 while Khan’s speeches were being streamed. This disruption took place in the context of a ban on broadcasting Khan’s speeches on television imposed by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)7 in August.8

The PTA also restricted access to Wikipedia for two days in February 2023, because the platform refused to remove content the PTA deemed “sacrilegious,”9 after “degrading” its access for 48 hours.10 The ban was lifted following an executive directive from then prime minister Shehbaz Sharif.11 Subsequently, the government barred the PTA from blocking any websites without consulting with the MOITT, though the legality of such a measure is unclear.12

Access to news website Deutsche Welle (DW) was also reportedly blocked in January and February 2023,13 though DW was accessible as of March on some networks.14 The news site FactFocus was reportedly blocked in Pakistan for 18 hours in November 2022 after it published leaked tax records of ex-army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and his family.15

Using its powers under section 37 of the PECA, the PTA has blocked several apps in the past, including TikTok, which has been briefly blocked four separate times in 2020 and 2021.16 The dating apps Tinder, Grindr, Tagged, Skout, and SayHi have been blocked since 2020.17 Political and secessionist movements in areas including Balochistan and Sindh provinces have been subject to systematic censorship for several years.18

The government also allegedly has access to censorship equipment. Pakistan is one of several countries reported to have purchased website blocking and filtering equipment from Sandvine, a Canadian-based network equipment company.19

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 1.001 4.004

State and other actors are known to exert extralegal pressure on publishers and content producers to remove content, and these instances frequently go unreported. The PTA also directs social media platforms and content hosts to remove content it deems illegal.

During the coverage period, the PTA sent several notices to social media companies, held meetings with them,1 and continued the process of registering companies under the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021 (see B3).

In April 2022, the PTA inaugurated the Central Domain Name System (CDNS) to automate content removal under section 37 of the PECA. 2 In response to concerns over the centralization of censorship at the government level, the PTA issued a clarification in June 2022, denying any efforts at centralization and stating that the system would automate blocking at the internet service provider (ISP) level, despite central management being referred to in the PTA’s own documents.3

From January to June 2022, Facebook’s parent company Meta reported removing 6,428 items reported by the PTA for violating local laws, the majority of which included 3,674 items for “blasphemy and anti-religious sentiment” and 2,010 items for “obscenity.”4 This was a substantial increase from the 2,317 items reported by the PTA in the period from July to December 2021.5 Between July and December 2021, the most recent data available, the Pakistani authorities asked Twitter to remove content through 489 requests relating to over 9,000 accounts. Twitter complied with 50.3 percent of the requests.6

The government sent 308 requests to Google to remove 4,441 pieces of content between January and June 2022, a decrease compared to the 7,438 pieces of content it had requested to be removed during the preceding six months.7 Seventy-three percent of the content was removed on the basis of local law. The removal requests included 23 videos from YouTube containing political speech regarding a former high ranking government official, which were not ultimately removed. Thirty-two percent of the removal requests related to religious offenses, 18 percent to obscenity and nudity, 12 percent to national security, and 13 percent to hate speech.8 In February 2023, Google reportedly removed 14 apps from its Google App Store at the request of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), which cited a breach of personal data of Pakistani citizens.9

TikTok, one of the most popular and fastest-growing platforms in Pakistan, reported that it received 169 requests to remove content during the period from July to December 2022, relating to 9,984 pieces of content. TikTok complied with 89.2 percent of the requests, with 4,428 pieces of content removed for community guidelines violations and 4,481 removed due to local law violations.10

In June 2022, the Peshawar High Court rejected a petition from residents of the city calling for a ban on uploading TikTok content contrary to Islamic life after the PTA indicated that it had a system to report problematic accounts to the platform for removal.11 In a statement to the Peshawar High Court, which issued a January 2022 written order to the PTA asking for “immoral content“ to be removed from the app, the PTA reported that it had blocked 28.9 million videos and 1.4 million accounts for sharing “immoral content.”12

Section 38 of the PECA limits civil or criminal liability for service providers for content posted by users, unless it is proven that the service provider had knowledge of cybercrimes or intent to proactively participate in cybercrimes committed under the act. The controversial Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021 include financial liability for social media platforms that do not comply with takedown requests within short timeframes under Rule 5(7)(c) (see B3).13

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 1.001 4.004

The PTA, the regulatory authority for online censorship, routinely restricts content in a nontransparent and arbitrary fashion. The government has adopted rules to consolidate its powers to remove content, though the status of the rules remains uncertain due to court challenges. The PTA has continued to exercise arbitrary powers to remove and block content in the interim.

The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021—introduced in October 2020 and notified with minor amendments in October 2021—expand the PTA’s powers under section 37 of the PECA to block and remove content on the internet. The rules give the PTA vast powers to censor content considered offensive under Pakistan's penal code, including content containing indecency, blasphemy, or false information, without providing any definitions of these terms. Under the rules, social media companies must comply with content moderation decisions of the PTA within 48 hours in regular circumstances and within 12 hours in emergency situations. If social media companies fail to comply within the time limits, the government may block their entire platform.1 Social media companies have warned that the rules could pose additional burdens that impact their ability to operate in the country (see B6).2

The rules were challenged at the Islamabad High Court in November 2021.3 In May 2022, the court referred the rules to the parliament for review in order to allow the Shehbaz Sharif-led government to make amendments to ensure freedom of expression.4 A committee was constituted by the federal government in September 2022 to review the rules per the court’s orders.5

In the interim, the status of the rules is unclear, though some social media companies have started to register under them.6 In December 2022, the MOITT stated that Google registered under the rules by obtaining a certificate of registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP).7 It is presently unclear whether SECP registration would make Google subject to the rules and thus obligated to remove content when requested by the PTA. The PTA subsequently issued a final notice to unregistered social media platforms in January 2023, recommending action against them by other government regulators, including the SBP, the SECP, and the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).8 Previously, in 2022, three companies—Joyo Technology Pakistan Pvt Ltd (Snack Video), Bigo Service Pakistan Pvt Ltd (BIGO Live, Likee),9 and Hong Kong–based MICO—registered with the PTA and are thus subject to local laws.10

In July and August 2023, after the coverage period, the government introduced over 100 bills prior to the National Assembly’s dissolution, including bills that would impose restrictions on digital content. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which was signed in August, empowers the country’s television regulator to regulate disinformation and misinformation, potentially influencing online broadcasting.11 Policymakers also considered, but did not pass, legislation to establish a new internet regulator though the E-Safety Bill, 2023 and to incorporate provisions of the Removal and Blocking Rules 2021 into the PECA, sidestepping the ongoing challenges to the rules’ legality.12

While the PECA legally mandates that the PTA issue notices when restricting content, in practice the agency rarely does. This lack of written notice impedes the ability of those impacted to appeal orders or undertake judicial review. The rules would further grant the government power to regulate social media and communications platforms.13

Apart from the PECA and new social media rules, 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 for religious reasons.14 A telecommunications policy approved in 2015 enables the PTA to monitor and manage content that is blasphemous or otherwise in conflict with the principles of the Islamic way of life, as well as content that is “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.15

As a condition of their licenses, ISPs and backbone providers must restrict access to individual URLs or internet protocol (IP) addresses upon receipt of a blocking order.16 Since 2012, successive administrations have sought to move from less sophisticated manual blocking toward technical filtering,17 despite widespread civil society protests.18 In 2013, the University of Toronto–based research group Citizen Lab reported that technology developed by the Canadian company Netsweeper, as well as domain name system (DNS) tampering,19 filtered political and social content at the national level on the PTCL network.20

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 1.001 4.004

Most online commentators exercise a degree of self-censorship when writing on topics such as religion, blasphemy, the military, separatist movements, women’s rights, and the rights of marginalized communities.1

In March 2021, a UN human rights panel raised concerns that the government was stifling journalism in Pakistan by filing false charges against online journalists and human rights defenders.2 A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released in 2022 found that self-censorship in the media has worsened in the last five years. A Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-based media advocate stated that journalists and activists in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa use self-censorship as a “tool to protect themselves and their families.”3 In a 2018 survey of Pakistani journalists, 46 percent of those questioned reported self-censoring due to fears for their safety and 18 percent reported restricting their reporting to noncontroversial subjects.4 A number of journalists, activists, and other content creators have reported a “climate of extreme fear and self-censorship” in Pakistan.5

In a January 2021 report by Media Matters for Democracy, nine out of every 10 women journalists surveyed stated that “they were more likely to face online violence if they did not self-censor their expression,” and 80 percent felt that it was not possible to practice journalism online without self-censorship.6

Self-censorship is also exacerbated by government surveillance and legal repercussions for online speech, as well as legal action taken against journalists under the PECA law.7 During a hearing at the Islamabad High Court in 2022, the judges pointed out that there was apprehension that wide regulatory powers and licensing systems could result in self-censorship.8

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2.002 4.004

Increasingly, coordinated and inauthentic accounts are manipulating online content and spreading disinformation. Online journalists and activists, especially those scrutinizing the military or intelligence agencies, have also testified to the existence of state-sponsored “troll armies” being employed to silence dissent.1

False, misleading, and manipulated online content on political subjects surged during the political crisis in 2023. For example, Imran Khan posted a video on Twitter in May 2023 about women’s support for the PTI protests that appeared to contain an AI-generated image of a woman confronting security forces.2 The military formed a task force in March to “check social media campaigns against the army,”3 consisting of officials from the PTA, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the NADRA.4 It is unclear how the task force operates. Intimidation is often used to silence critics of the military on social media, often manifesting in public apologies by the authors of critical social media posts.5

In April 2022, the new government disbanded the Digital Media Wing,6 which the PTI government had established under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 2020. The wing was widely believed to mobilize against PTI critics7 and was known to coordinate with security services.8 Government agencies also coordinate with bloggers and influencers to promote progovernment narratives and work with international bloggers to promote a positive image of the country.9

Separately, almost all mainstream political parties have their own social media wings and looser, wider networks, which toe the party line and attack opponents,10 including on TikTok.11

Pakistan's military also participates in manipulating digital spaces, including through content manipulation on social media platforms.12 In August 2022, the military inaugurated its Army Cyber Command, the aims of which include expanding Pakistan’s capacities in what the army refers to as “cyber war.”13

Foreign governments also seek to shape Pakistan’s information space. In August 2022, Twitter suspended a network of accounts, many of which claimed to be Kashmiri, that spread pro-India and anti-Pakistan narratives, sometimes aimed at people living in Balochistan.14 Former Twitter head of trust and safety Yoel Roth disclosed in September 2023 that Twitter linked the network to the Indian military.15 In February 2023, the EU Disinfo Lab similarly uncovered a network of online inauthentic sources—regularly quoted by Indian news outlets—that were being used to spread anti-Pakistan and anti-China narratives.16

In May 2021, Facebook removed a network of Facebook and Instagram accounts originating in Pakistan for coordinated and inauthentic behavior. Many of the account holders posed as independent media and posted political commentary about news stories, targeting domestic and international audiences.17 The network behind these attacks also had links to an account Facebook had removed in April 2019,18 which Facebook said was linked to the Pakistani military and had posted content about or operated promilitary pages and pages related to Kashmir.19

Individuals and political movements have been the targets of apparently coordinated campaigns seeking to discredit them with accusations of blasphemy—a criminal offense that carries the death penalty (see C2). Throughout the coverage period, the transgender community was subject to organized online disinformation campaigns related to the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018, particularly by the religious party Jamat-e-Islami.20

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 2.002 3.003

While some digital media outlets struggle to stay financially viable, the online landscape is generally free of major economic or regulatory constraints intended to prevent users from publishing independent political news and opinions. Past attempts to place licensing regimes on content creation have not led to policy changes.1

Government advertisement revenue is disbursed selectively based on outlets’ editorial positions.2 Media groups Dawn and Jang, known to be critical of the government, have had their advertisements suspended in the past, leading to downsizing by both groups.

Outside of obligations imposed under section 38 of the PECA (see B2), the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021 also impose additional obligations on social media companies and service providers by requiring them to set up local offices, develop and deploy mechanisms to moderate livestreams, and ensure uploads or livestreams do not contain content related to terrorism, extremism, hate speech, pornography, incitement to violence, or any subject detrimental to national security.

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 2.002 4.004

Despite content restrictions and high data costs, most Pakistanis have access to international news outlets and other independent media, as well as a range of websites representing political parties, local civil society groups, and international human rights organizations.1 Over the years, many digital, nonlegacy news outlets2 and content creators have emerged on applications such as YouTube and TikTok. Encouragingly, video-based social media platforms have enabled content creation in regional languages and by diverse creators regardless of their literacy levels.3 However, content online is largely dominated by users with the greatest access—generally those in urban areas with the means to afford internet service.

While there are several outlets producing content in regional languages, there is still a disproportionate amount of Urdu- and English-language content. Urdu content online is limited because of the barriers presented by digitizing the nastaʿlīq script.4

Social taboos and the criminalization of same-sex relations mean that local content addressing the interests of LGBT+ people is limited, and some people avoid mobilizing around their identities as a result.5 The platforms popular in Pakistan, including government websites, sometimes fail to account for accessibility for people with disabilities.6 Furthermore, false information, often disseminated in coordinated and targeted campaigns, increasingly affects the reliability of content on the internet.7

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 3.003 6.006

Social networking, blogging, and voice-over-IP (VoIP) applications are available and widely used. However, digital activism is limited by a government ban on crowdfunding,1 restrictions on internet and mobile connectivity, and restrictive laws (see A3 and B3).

The internet has provided a space for individuals to discuss issues censored in the mainstream media, though users mobilizing around controversial topics online increasingly face repercussions for their activism (see C3 and C7).

During the coverage period, PTI supporters used digital platforms and messaging apps to mobilize support and protests,2 particularly as Khan and his party faced widespread censorship in the mainstream media.3 The authorities used social media posts and messages to arrest and detain PTI members (see C3).4

Despite facing a complete blackout in print and electronic media and its activists experiencing arrests,5 the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has mobilized rallies across the country through its online presence.6 Feminists and women’s rights activists have also used the global #MeToo movement to expose the sexual misconduct of powerful men in Pakistan.

The internet has also provided a space for individuals to mobilize on political and social issues. During the 2022 floods, those affected used social media to raise awareness about the needs of victims on the ground and helped to sustain relief efforts.7

Organizers of the Aurat (Women’s) March held in March 2022 leveraged social media to mobilize support,8 though they were targeted by coordinated misinformation campaigns (see B5) and accused of blasphemy (see C3),9 forcing some to go underground.10 Transgender activists have also leveraged digital platforms to cultivate community spaces. For example, when the Sindh High Court denied permission to hold "Scrap Fest"—a festival consisting primarily of transgender performers—in Karachi in February 2023, the event was moved online.11

C Violations of User Rights

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 2.002 6.006

Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution establishes freedom of speech and freedom of the press as fundamental rights, and Article 19A guarantees access to information. However, these rights are subject to several broad restrictions, including for "the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.”1 Exceptions for online spaces are codified under section 37 of the PECA.2 Pakistani courts have not clearly interpreted terms such as “national interest,” “decency,” and “morality,” and parameters of the constitutional articles are largely seen as inapplicable to the most powerful institutions in the country.

The judiciary in Pakistan has had a history of rubber-stamping military regimes under the doctrine of necessity. The Supreme Court was embroiled in controversies relating to the political crisis during the coverage period, including attempts to curb the wide powers of the chief justice.3

However, some rulings have affirmed online expression and other fundamental rights. For example, the Lahore High Court struck down a colonial-era sedition law used to target journalists and activists in March 2023.4 Previously, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutional right to free expression and press freedom in a February 2019 ruling, stating that the government could not restrict the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, expression, and press beyond the limitations defined in Article 19.5

Pakistan became a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—which protects freedom of expression among other rights—in 2010 but does not consistently uphold it in practice.6 The applicability of international law in local courts is a contentious issue. Pakistan is a dualist country, making international treaties legally binding only once they are specifically incorporated into local law.

The federal government7 and the Sindh provincial government passed journalist protection bills during the previous coverage period. Both laws include online content creators and bloggers in their provisions.8 The laws have been criticized by civil society and journalist unions for containing broad language about good faith requirements for sharing information that can result in punitive sanctions,9 and the extent of the implementation of the journalist protection provisions remains unclear.10

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 0.000 4.004

Several laws restrict the rights of internet users. The PECA, which was implemented in August 2016, contains excessively broad language and disproportionate penalties—including a 14-year prison term—for acts of cyberterrorism, hate speech, and defamation.1 The law also punishes preparing or disseminating electronic communications that glorify terrorism or information that is likely to advance religious, ethnic, or sectarian hatred, an offense that is punishable with up to seven years in prison. Section 20 criminalizes online defamation with a maximum three-year prison term, a fine of 1 million rupees ($5,700), or both.2 The criminal defamation section has been used to target journalists, dissidents, and survivors of sexual harassment.3

In February 2022, the government passed an ordinance amending the PECA.4 The ordinance expands the definition of a person in the context of the criminal defamation section to include companies, associations, public authorities, and any government office. The ordinance also increases the maximum prison sentence for defamation under the PECA from three to five years. Civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, criticized the ordinance for restricting freedom of expression,5 and the national journalists’ union challenged it at the Islamabad High Court.6 In April 2022, the court struck down the ordinance as unconstitutional and also struck down a clause in section 20 of the PECA that deals with defamation.7 The Lahore court, by contrast, held section 20 to be constitutional in March 2022.8 The Supreme Court will likely consider the conflicting judgments on the status of section 20.9

In the past, the Islamabad High Court has issued directions to include pornography and blasphemy as offenses under the PECA, though no legal changes have been made to this effect.10

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 online (see C3). In March 2017, the Islamabad High Court 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 merit.

The 2002 Defamation Ordinance—which continues to be invoked despite being effectively replaced by the PECA—can impose prison sentences of up to five years. Furthermore, sections 499 and 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) also deal with criminal defamation and can be applied online. Section 124 of the PPC 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.12 Additionally, section 505 of the PPC, which deals with “statements conducing to public mischief,” has been used to penalize and arrest dissidents speaking out against public institutions.

In August 2023, after the coverage period, President Arif Alvi rejected a bill that would have increased the penalty for certain types of blasphemy from three years to a minimum of 10 years in prison, made such speech nonbailable, and allowed for arrest without a warrant.13 The National Assembly had unanimously passed a version of the bill in January.14

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 1.001 6.006

People are frequently prosecuted for their online activities, often receiving harsh sentences. The death penalty was imposed in three cases of online blasphemy during the coverage period, and previous cases in which the death penalty was imposed were appealed or upheld.

There have been a number of blasphemy cases against users for allegedly criticizing Islam online.1 In November 2022, a man in Lower Dir was sentenced to death twice for blasphemy and to 21 years in prison for other religious offences on social media, after a phone registered in his name was found carrying purportedly blasphemous photos that he also shared in a WhatsApp group.2 In March 2023, an anti-terrorism court in Peshawar sentenced a man to death and imprisonment on multiple counts for allegedly committing blasphemy on social media.3 In June 2022, a man was sentenced to death for an allegedly blasphemous social media post describing himself as a prophet.4 Also in June, the Lahore High Court upheld the death sentences of two Christian brothers who were convicted in 2018 of uploading blasphemous material to social media. The case was registered in 2011, and the accused have been in custody since.5

In April 2023, a woman was arrested for blasphemy after a mob assembled outside her house in response to a viral video of her on social media.6 Another woman was arrested in Lahore for making viral “blasphemous” videos.7 In September 2022, a man was arrested for uploading “sacrilegious” content to Facebook.8

The cybercrime wing of the FIA stated in December 2022 that they were working with several religious groups to file cases of blasphemy, having arrested 62 people in relation to blasphemy cases on social media,9 while the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony (MORA) reactivated its Web Evaluation Cell to identify and take action against cases of online blasphemy during the coverage period.10

In addition, death penalty convictions from previous coverage periods remain pending or on appeal. In January 2021, an antiterrorism court, which is not open to the public or to observers, sentenced three men to death and a fourth man to 10 years in prison in a case of online blasphemy.11 In 2020, Asif Parvaiz was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges after being convicted of sending derogatory remarks about the prophet Muhammad to his work supervisor; his sentence is under appeal, and he remains under death row.12 In 2019, academic Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death by a court for allegedly committing blasphemy verbally and on Facebook.13 Hafeez’s case was under appeal as of the end of the coverage period, and he has been held in solitary confinement since 2014. A Christian man convicted while still a teenager in 2018 for posting a picture of a holy site on social media and allegedly insulting Islam was granted bail by the Lahore High Court in 2021.14

Political speech, such as criticism of the government, judiciary, or the armed forces, is sometimes subject to legal action.15 In August 2022, Bol TV journalist Jameel Farooqui was arrested for comments on his YouTube channel alleging the Islamabad police had “physically and sexually” assaulted a political detainee while in custody.16 He was charged under sections 499 and 500 of the PPC.17 At least 17 cases were filed against Express News journalist Imran Riaz for his videos on social media, including one that allegedly sought to “tarnish” the image of the army.18 In early 2023, Riaz was arrested by the FIA under sections 11, 20, and 24 of the PECA and sections 500 and 505 of the PPC19 ; he was subsequently released20 and granted bail.21 Riaz was subjected to an enforced disappearance in May 2023; he was recovered in September (see C7).22 Journalist Shahid Aslam was arrested by the FIA in January 2023 for allegedly leaking tax data of the former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) retired general Qamar Javed Bajwa in a report for the news site FactFocus.23

The Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of this systemic harassment of journalists in August 2021,24 but the case was dismissed within a matter of days on jurisdictional grounds.25 In April 2022, the Islamabad High Court ordered the interior ministry to open an inquiry into the misuse of the PECA by FIA officials.26 There has been no inquiry under this order as of the end of the coverage period.

PTI supporters have been arrested for expressing their support for Imran Khan or criticizing the military and government, including online. In August 2022, the FIA arrested 19 people for posts about an army helicopter crash; authorities called the posts an anti-military “propaganda campaign.”27 One of the people arrested, a PTI supporter, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment in February 2023 for defaming the army senior military leadership on Twitter.28

Senior party leaders of the PTI were also targeted under the PECA, most prominently Senator Azam Swati, who was arrested for a critical Twitter post about the army.29 Swati alleged that he was tortured in custody30 and that an intimate video of him and his wife was shared with family members to intimidate him.31 He was rearrested in November 202232 and released in January 2023.33 In March 2023, the PTI’s social media head, Azhar Mashwani, was arrested on unclear charges and detained for 8 days.34 Members of the PTI’s social media wing were systematically detained throughout the coverage period.35

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1.001 4.004

Requirements that users link their internet and mobile connections to their national identity card limit anonymous use of the internet.1 Increasingly stringent security measures mean that users must register fingerprints along with other identifying information when applying for WLL internet packages and mobile service.2 Mobile phones must be linked to national identification card numbers through the PTA’s Device Identification, Registration and Blocking System (DIRBS), and unregistered phones have been subject to disconnection.3

The government has previously moved to restrict encrypted communication. In June 2020, the PTA announced that it would instruct internet users to register their virtual private networks (VPNs) or face legal action, and the agency introduced an online portal for VPN registration in October 2020.4 Although there have been no crackdowns on unregistered VPNs, users have reported intermittent throttling of registered VPNs; the PTA has denied restricting VPN connections.5 In September 2022, the PTA repeated its notice to users to register their VPNs by October 2022, threatening disruptions to those who do not comply.6

The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021 contain provisions mandating that social media companies provide decrypted information to designated investigation agencies. If implemented, the rules could lead to an unprecedented clampdown on encrypted communications.7

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

Government surveillance is a serious concern for activists, bloggers, and media representatives, as well as ordinary internet users. The PECA grants 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 oversight1 and grants powers to law enforcement to seize digital devices and content.2

Throughout the coverage period, there were regular leaks of audio recordings with various political actors, including from within the prime minister’s office,3 raising concerns about widespread wiretapping.4 Law enforcement agencies reported using a range of tactics to surveil people allegedly involved in attacking military installations during the May 2023 protest, including geofencing, obtaining call records, seeking footage from safe city cameras, and collecting social media posts.5

In 2019, the news outlet Coda Story reported on Pakistan's 2.5 billion rupee ($14.2 million) government contract with Canada-headquartered surveillance technologies firm Sandvine, from 2018, for a national “web-monitoring system.”6 Greatly enhancing the PTA’s ability to monitor online traffic, the system employs deep packet inspection (DPI) to monitor communications and measure and record traffic and call data. Further details of the system are shrouded in secrecy, and whether it has been or will be implemented is unclear.

Concerns around social media monitoring spiked in March 2019, after the Ministry of Interior ordered an investigation into what it defined as a “targeted social media campaign” against Saudi Arabia while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was visiting Pakistan.7 The ministry’s order identified journalists and activists who allegedly shared messages that were “very disrespectful” to the crown prince because they included images of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In July 2021, a phone number associated with then-prime minister Imran Khan was identified on a list of potential targets of the spyware Pegasus.8 In December 2019, malware from the Israel-based NSO Group was reported to be used against at least two dozen Pakistani government officials via WhatsApp, prompting the MOITT to advise government officials against using WhatsApp for official correspondence.9 State officials have also come under malware attacks through fake smartphone apps, according to a 2019 report by Blackberry Research.10

According to a 2015 Privacy International report, the government has had access to network surveillance technology from companies like Ericsson and Huawei since 2005. A 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, though the extent of its use and who may be using it remained unclear.11

The Fair Trial Act, passed in 2013,12 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. 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. The provisions contravene the constitution and international treaties that the Pakistani government has signed.13

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 privacy rules.14 Data from NADRA and telecommunications companies, as well as police records, are reportedly sold online, including on Facebook and WhatsApp,15 as was reported in 2020.16 In 2021, the FIA revealed that NADRA’s biometric data had been compromised and was being used to sell fake SIM cards.17

Pakistanis are also vulnerable to surveillance from overseas intelligence agencies. In 2015, the online outlet The Intercept found that the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency had hacked the PIE 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.”18

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

Companies are required to aid the government in monitoring internet users. There is currently no data protection law in Pakistan. As a result of this lack of oversight, ISPs, mobile service providers, and private enterprises are not obliged to maintain or comply with any data protection policies that are in place.1

Under the Fair Trial Act, service providers face a one-year jail term or a fine of up to 10 million rupees ($56,700) for failing to cooperate with warrants (see C5). Section 32 of the PECA 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. Section 54 of Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-Organization) Act, 1996 empowers the federal government “to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any telecommunication system.” 2 Furthermore, regulations introduced in 2018 require all Wi-Fi hotspot service providers to retain user data, including users’ names, national identity card or passport numbers, mobile phone numbers, time of login and log-off, IP address, media access control (MAC) address, and internet access log.3

Telecommunications companies, ISPs, and SIM card vendors are required to authenticate the Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) details of prospective customers with NADRA before providing service.4 After a reregistration drive in 2014,5 the government added a biometric thumb impression to the registration requirements for SIM cards.6 Twenty-six million SIM cards that failed to meet the new requirement were subsequently blocked in 2015.7 While there is no general data protection law in the country, the Critical Telecom Data and Infrastructure Security Regulations, 2020 developed by the PTA, includes some privacy safeguards, such as provisions for limited access to telecom-related user data.8

The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021 require “significant social media companies,” defined as those with over 500,000 users, to register with the PTA, establish a permanent registered office in Pakistan, and appoint an in-country representative. Companies will also be required to comply with any future data localization laws.9 In August 2020, the National Assembly passed the Mutual Legal Assistance (Criminal Matters) Act 2020,10 which details a procedure for the government to acquire data from a foreign authority in order to prosecute an individual charged with a criminal offense, including those under the penal code.11

Technology companies have previously complied with government requests for user data. Between January and June 2022, Meta complied with 46.76 percent of the government’s 1,373 requests for user data, which related to 1,783 accounts.12 Google complied with 10 percent of 20 requests relating to 41 accounts in the same period.13 Twitter complied with none of the 17 requests it received between July and December 2021.14 Registration under the 2021 removal and blocking rules (see B3) may lead to compliance rates increasing significantly.

There is no data privacy law in Pakistan, though the right to privacy is recognized under Article 14 of the constitution. Several versions of a draft bill have been released for public comment since 2018. The bills have been criticized for containing vague language, requiring onerous data localization, and giving the federal government authority to make exceptions.15 The latest iteration of the bill, to which the cabinet assented in July 2023, after the coverage period, has drawn similar criticism.16

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities? 1.001 5.005

Users continue to face intimidation, blackmail, hate speech, and at times violence, in response to online activism, reporting, and debate, as well as apolitical online activity such as socializing. The military routinely abducts individuals for their reporting or activism, and in recent years it has used this practice on social media activists.

In June 2022, journalist and social activist Arsalan Khan was allegedly abducted by law enforcement agencies.1 He was released after 24 hours by the Rangers force after the incident was widely shared on social media.2 In March 2023, Abid Mir, a Baloch journalist, activist, and regional editor for digital media organisation Lok Sujag, was reported missing. The Islamabad Police claim Mir had returned home; his family disputes the claim.3 Journalist Imran Riaz was disappeared following his May 2023 arrest by the FIA in connection to the crackdown on PTI supporters and workers.4 He was returned in September 2023, though the circumstances of his disappearance remain unclear;5 all police and intelligence agencies had claimed that he was not in their custody.6

Previous years have seen more extreme repression. In 2019, blogger and social media activist Muhammad Bilal Khan was killed in a knife attack; he promoted interfaith harmony and called for investigations into enforced disappearances on social media.7

Free expression activists, bloggers, and online journalists have reported being attacked and receiving death threats online and offline, and Pakistan is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for traditional journalists.8 Concerns for the safety of Pakistani journalists escalated after the October 2022 killing of journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya, which was widely believed to be linked to his critical commentary about the state and military.9

Throughout the coverage period, the military used intimidation tactics to force people to publicly denounce criticism of the military expressed online. For example, several PTI social media workers have been made to publicly apologize for their critiques of the country’s military.10

According to the Digital Rights Foundation, there was an exponential rise in online gender-based violence in Pakistan, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.11 These figures have continued to rise, with over 6,000 complaints of sexual harassment submitted by women to the FIA’s cybercrime wing between January to August 2021.12 Organizers and participants of the Aurat March, which celebrated International Women’s Day, are subjected to intense online attacks, including death and rape threats each year.13 Women who are victims of online harassment, in the absence of other resources, sometimes consider suicide.14

Women’s use of digital tools is heavily controlled by families (see A2), and some have been murdered for their online activities in so-called honor killings. In January 2023, a man murdered his daughter on the pre-text of honor after a video of her dancing went viral on social media.15 In April 2022, three brothers killed their sister after they saw a Facebook picture of her with a man.16 In one of Pakistan’s highest-profile cases, Qandeel Baloch, a social media celebrity known for openly expressing her sexuality, was killed by her brother in 2016. Her brother acknowledged killing her for dishonoring the family name and was later acquitted despite the case’s high visibility.17

Women journalists have frequently been on the receiving end of government-backed harassment and disinformation campaigns online. The Pakistan Press Foundation identified several such campaigns initiated by the PTI government in 2021. In October 2021, for example, PTI ministers and pro-PTI accounts harassed journalist Asma Shirazi in response to an online article she wrote for BBC Urdu about economic conditions in Pakistan.18

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because there were no publicly reported cyberattacks against human rights defenders, civil society, or online media outlets during the coverage period.

Technical attacks against the websites of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), opposition groups, and activists are common in Pakistan, though many go unreported.

Women activists and journalists are frequently targeted by sophisticated email-based phishing attacks aimed at obtaining their private information.1 In 2018, Amnesty International reported digital attacks on human rights defenders, such as hacked accounts and devices and the installation of spyware. The attackers allegedly employed fake online identities and social media profiles to target activists.2 The software used in these attacks, Crimson, has previously been used against Indian military and diplomatic figures.3

There were also reported breaches of data originally collected for government initiatives and hacks of state websites and databases. In 2023, hackers from allegedly India-based Sidewinder group reportedly accessed Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs' (MoFA) systems and extracted at least 7.5 terabytes (TB) of data, including officials’ WhatsApp conversations.4 Cybersecurity researchers disclosed in March 2023 that a network of “suspected government-backed hackers” had targeted people in Pakistan with a military or political background throughout the coverage period.5 In October 2022, it was reported that personal data of users of telecommunications services was breached, including CNIC numbers and family tree information.6

In August 2022, a hack of the SECP’s website led to the leakage of data including CNIC numbers and permanent addresses of company directors.7 In August 2022, the Federal Board of Revenue shut down its website for 24 hours to mitigate an allegedly impending cyberattack.8 In May 2022, the MOITT stated that it had experienced an attempted cyberattack on its National Telecom Corporation system.9 In December 2022, the official Twitter account of the Pakistani consulate in the Afghan city of Kandahar was hacked.10

In light of the Pegasus revelations, the government approved and passed the National Cyber Security Policy 2021 in July 2021.11 Though wide in its ambit, the policy did not institute any concrete measures and its implementation remains unclear.

Cross-border cyberattacks between Pakistan and India continue.12 For example, cybersecurity researchers at BlackBerry disclosed in May 2023 that an India-affiliated hacking group had targeted Pakistani government and military officials.13

Critical infrastructure also lacks essential digital security protections. In November 2020, Israeli cybercrime researchers revealed that Russian hackers were selling access to the Pakistan International Airlines network and database on the dark web.14 The PTA plans to set up Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) at the national, sectoral, and organizational level. A CERT focused on the telecommunications sector was launched in February 2023.15

On Pakistan

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

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    37 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    26 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

  • Websites Blocked

  • Pro-government Commentators

  • Users Arrested