Freedom on the Net 2022 - Pakistan

/ 100
Obstacles to Access 6 / 25
Limits on Content 13 / 35
Violations of User Rights 7 / 40
25 / 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.


Internet freedom remained constricted during the coverage period, as the Pakistani government continued to tightly control the online environment. Authorities routinely use internet shutdowns, platform blocking, and arrests and harsh convictions to suppress unwanted online speech. The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards) Rules were passed during the coverage period and dramatically expand authorities’ control over the online information space. Online activists and journalists are often subjected to harassment, including some cases of physical assaults and enforced disappearances. An ongoing economic crisis and catastrophic flooding in August 2022, after the coverage period, also impeded access to the internet across the country.

Pakistan holds regular elections under a multiparty political system, and saw a peaceful transfer of power in April 2022 when an opposition coalition elected Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister after former prime minister Imran Khan lost a no-confidence vote. However, the military exerts enormous influence over security and other policy issues, intimidates the media, and enjoys impunity for indiscriminate or extralegal use of force. The authorities impose selective restrictions on civil liberties, and some Islamist militant groups carry out attacks on civilians, particularly Hindu, Christian, Ahmadi, and other religious minority communities, as well as 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.

Key Developments, June 1, 2021 - May 31, 2022

  • Increased taxes on mobile services increased barriers to internet access, particularly in light of the country’s economic crisis (see A2).
  • Officials authorized the resumption of internet services in parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), but also imposed short-term localized connectivity restrictions throughout the cover period (see A3).
  • The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked TikTok from July to November 2021 and authorities reported that, after being unblocked, the platform systematically removes content flagged by the government for being immoral or indecent (see B1 and B2).
  • In May 2022, a court charged the new government with amending the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguard) Rules to protect free expression. The Rules were passed in October 2021 and create onerous requirements for social media companies to moderate content, provide authorities broader power to censor online content and undermine encryption, and impose data-localization requirements (see B3, B6, C4 and C6).
  • In February 2022, the government broadened the definition of defamation under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) to include corporations and public authorities and increase the punishment under that provision; courts issued conflicting judgements on the constitutionality of the amendments (see C2).
  • A woman was sentenced to death in January 2022 for allegedly sharing blasphemous material on WhatsApp and Facebook, and several others faced ongoing death penalty convictions in online blasphemy cases (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 1 / 6

Internet penetration increased at a steady rate over the pandemic, the reporting period included. As of May 2022, internet penetration stood at 53.1 percent, compared to 46.9 in June 2021, according to data from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).1 Mobile internet penetration rates stood at 51.73 percent as of May 2022, compared to 45.6 percent in the previous coverage period.2 According to data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), fixed 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 15.32 megabits per second (Mbps) in May 2022. Median fixed-broadband download speed stood at 9.28 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 in October 2021, caused by a fault in a submarine cable near the UAE;6 in December 20217 and January 2022,8 due to faults in the Southeast Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4) system; in February 2022, because of breakage in the TransWorld 1 (TW1) system;9 and in April 2022, during configurations on the SEA-ME-WE 4.10

Power outages are a serious problem in Pakistan, especially during the summer,11 and prevent individuals from accessing routers and charging their devices.12 While in previous years there were improvements in electrical supply, there have been massive power outages13 across the country in 2022 due to the rise in fuel prices worldwide;14 in June 2022, telecommunications providers warned the PTA that prolonged electricity issues might disrupt internet access as well.15

In August 2022, after the coverage period, catastrophic floods across Pakistan that left hundreds dead also interrupted internet access in some areas, including on state-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) fiber networks.16

A2 0-3 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 / 3

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, taxes imposed during the coverage period restricted internet affordability further.

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 2020,17 while found the average price to be $0.36 as of May 2022.18 The Finance (Supplementary) Act 2022 introduced in January increased the withholding tax on cellular services, such as calls and internet use, from 10 percent to 15 percent,19 bringing the cumulative tax burden on mobile services to 34.5 percent.20 It also increased sales taxes on laptops and computers by 17 percent21 and imposed a 5 percent sales tax on imported electronic devices22 . The MOITT severely criticized the move, warning that it would significantly impact the digital economy.23

Disparities in internet access and infrastructure are severe between different regions of the country. Sixty percent of Balochistan lacked internet connectivity as of 2020, and in areas where there was coverage, mobile internet speeds were lower than the national average.24 The PTA lifted restrictions on internet services in some parts of the country during the coverage period (see A3).

Barriers to accessing the internet significantly impacted students’ lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading students to protest government decisions and file several petitions with the Balochistan and Islamabad high courts.25 In January 2021, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) forwarded student petitions asking for the restoration of internet services in tribal areas to the federal cabinet for review,26 but there has been little progress on restoration since.27

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 KP, and has completed infrastructure construction in Southern Punjab, Sindh, parts of Balochistan, and northern KP.28 The USF announced over 5.7 billion rupees ($32,300,000) in additional subsidies for projects in Balochistan and Punjab during the coverage period.29 The budget released in June 2022, after the coverage period, increased a tax on optical fiber cable imports from 10 percent to 20 percent, raising concerns that the hike could impact developmental projects for expanding internet access.30

Facebook’s free-basics program has been available for several years on multiple telecommunications networks in the country,31 including Zong and Telenor.32 However, these programs run 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 these services without notice.33

Low literacy, difficult economic conditions, and conservative cultural norms have also created inequalities in how Pakistanis access the internet.34 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.35 According to the GSMA, women are 33 percent less likely than men to own a mobile device and 38 percent less likely to use the internet as of June 2022.36 A January 2021 report by Media Matters for Democracy found that 6 of every 10 Pakistani women are likely to have their internet usage restricted, monitored, or controlled by family members.37 Women who are active online report high levels of harassment that discourages greater use of ICTs (see C7). Women and people who are not cisgender face additional institutional barriers to connect to the internet, such as difficulties in obtaining identity cards, which are prerequisites for SIM cards (see C4).38 The USF has launched some projects for gender inclusion,39 and in February 2022 the PTA announced a public-private partnership aimed at reducing the gender divide in digital access.40

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 2 / 6

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 to reflect the restoration of internet services in some parts of KP and Balochistan, though the government continued imposing localized internet shutdowns throughout the country.

Authorities frequently disrupt telecommunication services during protests,41 elections,42 and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns.

Frequent shutdowns continued throughout the coverage period. Internet services in parts of Lahore were suspended in response to deadly clashes between police and members of the ultrareligious party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) during protests in October 2021 on orders of the Interior Ministry.43 In November 2021, internet services at the venue of the Asma Jahangir Conference were suspended to thwart a speech via video link by Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the then-opposition Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, likely due to intervention from the authorities.44 In May 2022, there were several reports of internet throttling during country-wide protests by supporters of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party,45 though the reports were denied by the PTA.46

Mobile internet services were suspended in Islamabad and Rawalpindi in March 2022 for most of the day as part of annual security measures implemented for the Pakistan Day parade.47 Internet services were suspended for three days in Islamabad as part of the security plan for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference in December 2021.48 Mobile services were also suspended during processions on the ninth and tenth days of the month of Muharram across the country in 52 cities,49 including parts of Rawalpindi,50 Peshawar,51 Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Jhang, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Attock, and Dera Ghazi Khan.52

During the coverage period, mobile internet services with third-generation (3G), fourth-generation (4G), and long-term evolution (LTE) technology were also shut down in areas that receive comparatively little media attention, such as the less developed regions of Balochistan.53 Long-term shutdowns have also been implemented in restive border regions, including one lasting more than five years in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), now incorporated into KP,54 and mobile services were periodically suspended in other parts of the former FATA,55 allegedly for national security reasons.56

Officials restored internet services in some parts of Balochistan and KP during the coverage period. In June 2021, the Ministry of Interior cleared Turbat city, Kech, Panjgur, and several other localities in Balochistan for mobile internet coverage after five years of restricted connectivity;57 it also cleared Khyber district in KP.58 In December 2021, it was announced that mobile internet services would be restored in Kurram district of KP as well.59 Previously, security clearance had been provided for internet services in Waziristan and Bajaur.60 The process of restoration is piecemeal and services have not been fully restored, particularly in the districts bordering Afghanistan.61 In May 2022, mobile internet was suspended again in Bajaur.62

The PTA held a 4G spectrum auction for Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in September 2021 in which three licenses were granted,63 though as of January 2022 services were not accessible.64 The lack of 4G coverage has resulted in the region being cut off from the rest of the country, especially during pandemic lockdowns when students had to travel vast distances in order to simply attend classes.65

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.66 In February 2018, the IHC held that mobile-network shutdowns on the pretext of public safety under 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.67 In April 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to suspend mobile networks.68

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, 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, TW1.69

PTCL also controls access to four international undersea fiber-optic cables: the Southeast Asia–Middle East–Western Europe (SEA-ME-WE) 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4; the India–Middle East–Western Europe (I-ME-WE);70 and the Asia-Africa-Europe-1 (AAE-1) cable system, which was built as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.71 Another China-sponsored project, the Pakistan & East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) fiber-optic cable, is not partnered with the PTCL.72 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,73 and plans are underway to extend it to other parts of the country.74 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.75

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 3 / 6

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 processes,76 powers it is granted under section 5(2)(a) of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996. 77

According to licensing information published by the PTA, in 2021, there were four primary cellular 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 country-wide.78 The market in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and GB is slightly different as there are six cellular mobile service operators and providers: Telenor, Jazz, Ufone, CMPak, Warid, and the military-run Special Communications Organization (SCO)79 

Jazz had a majority market share of 38.82 percent as of May 2022; their main competitors are PTML, which is a PTCL subsidiary operating as Ufone, with an 11.80 percent market share; Telenor Pakistan, part of a Norwegian multinational company, with a 25.80 percent market share; and CMPak, with a market share of 22.73 percent.80

Further, there were 10 licensed wireless local loop (WLL) operators and81 16 long-distance and international (LDI) operators.82 Several dozen licenses had also been issued for companies providing value-added services in the telecommunications sector.83

The predominantly state-owned PTCL has long dominated the broadband market.84 The Broadband Policy, which aimed to encourage investment in broadband infrastructure and greater connectivity, was last issued by the PTA in 2004,85 though there were assurances in July 2021 by the federal government that a new broadband policy would be issued soon.86 The policy has yet to materialize, but the consultation drafts shared by the MOITT have been criticized for being inadequate.87 The last draft for consultation was issued in early 2022.

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0 / 4

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 wholesale bans on platforms. Internet freedom advocates and human rights groups have expressed concerns about the PTA’s lack of transparency and independence,88 as well as its broad powers over online content and licensing of service providers.

The prime minister appoints the chair and members of the three-person authority, which reports to the MOITT.89 Under section 8 of the PTA Act 1996, the federal government has the powers to issue policy directives regarding the work and functions of the PTA. The current chairperson of the PTA is retired major general Amir Azeem Bajwa. 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. There has been a lack of transparency and oversight of the PTA in terms of its decisions under section 37 of PECA to block and remove content on the internet (see B3).

B Limits on Content

B1 0-6 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 / 6

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, among other political and social content.90 The PTA reported in September 2021 that it had blocked over 1 million links and websites containing “inappropriate content.”91 In June 2021, the PTA revealed that it blocked more than 25,000 URLs— including 25,000 Facebook accounts, 307 Twitter posts, and 224 YouTube videos—for allegedly carrying “anti-state material.”92 Since there is no publicly available list of blocked websites published by the PTA, information about blocks is often anecdotal and on a case-by-case basis.

During the coverage period, the PTA blocked social media platforms until company leadership agreed to moderate content deemed obscene or immoral. TikTok was banned four separate times between October 2020 and the end of the coverage period.93 Most recently, the app was blocked between July 2021 and November 2021; the ban was lifted after assurances the company would control “immoral and indecent content” on the app.94

Using its powers under section 37 of PECA, the PTA blocked the multiplayer online game PlayerUnknown’s Battle Ground (PUBG) in July 2020, during the previous coverage period, after allegedly receiving reports that the game was dangerous for children's health.95 After hearing a petition challenging the ban, the IHC directed the regulator to immediately end it. The PTA lifted the ban a month later after receiving confirmation from the company regarding measures implemented to prevent the game’s misuse.96 Additionally in July 2020, the PTA banned the livestreaming application Bigo after allegedly receiving complaints that the application contained ”immoral, obscene and vulgar content.”97 The ban on Bigo was lifted nine days later,98 after PTA members received confirmation from one of the company’s vice presidents that vulgar content would be moderated in line with Pakistani laws.99 In September 2020, the PTA banned and blocked100 five dating apps—Tinder, Grindr, Tagged, Skout, and SayHi—for spreading ”immoral content.”101 These applications remained banned at the end of the coverage period.

Political dissent and secessionist movements in areas including Balochistan and Sindh Provinces have been subject to systematic censorship for several years.102 The official websites of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party based in Sindh, remained blocked as of June 2021. The government banned websites operated by the MQM in 2016 after the party’s exiled leader delivered what officials characterized as an “anti-Pakistan speech.”103

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.104 In April 2022, the PTA inaugurated the Central Domain Name System to automate content removal under section 37 of PECA.105 In response to concerns over centralization of censorship at the government level, the PTA issued a clarification in June 2022, after the coverage period, denying centralization and stating that the system would automate blocking at the internet service provider (ISP) level.106

B2 0-4 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 / 4

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, and began the process of registering companies under the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2021 (see B3).

From July to December 2021, Facebook’s parent company Meta reported removing 2,317 items of content that the PTA alleged had violated local laws. According to the company’s transparency report, this included 1,827 items reported for blasphemy and antireligious sentiment and 390 items related to obscenity.107 In the same period, the Pakistani authorities requested Twitter remove content through 489 requests relating to over 9,000 accounts. Twitter complied with 50.3 percent of the requests.108

The government sent 378 requests to Google to remove 7,438 pieces of content between July and December 2021, a decrease compared to the 24,297 pieces of content it had requested removed during the previous six months. 73.4 percent of the content was removed on the basis of local law. 33 percent of the removal requests related to religious offenses, 17 percent to obscenity and nudity, 17 percent to national security, and 13 percent to hate speech. For example, Google restricted access to a post on Blogger in Pakistan for violation of local blasphemy laws.109

TikTok, one of the most popular and fastest-growing platforms in Pakistan, revealed that Pakistan has the fourth-largest volume of videos removed for community guidelines or terms of service violations.110 TikTok received 22 requests to remove content during the period of July to December 2021, relating to 6,731 pieces of content and 40 accounts; the platform was blocked for most of that period (see B1). TikTok complied with 95 percent of the requests, with 5,514 videos removed for community guidelines violations and 935 removed due to local law violations. In comparison, during the first half of the year, TikTok received 94 requests to remove 24,201 pieces of content.111

In June 2022, after the coverage period, 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 it had a system to report problematic accounts to the platform for removal.112 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 blocked 28.9 million videos and 1.4 million accounts for sharing “immoral content.”113

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 knowledge of 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 includes financial liability for social media platforms that do not comply with takedown requests under Rule 5(7)(c) (see B3).114

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 1 / 4

The PTA, the regulatory authority for online censorship, routinely restricts content in a nontransparent and arbitrary fashion. The government notified new 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—expands 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 the Pakistan Penal Code, including content containing indecency, blasphemy, or false information, without providing any definitions. Under the rules, social media companies must comply with content moderation decisions of the PTA within 48 hours normally 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.115 Social media companies have warned that the rules could pose additional burdens that impact their ability to operate in the country (see B6).116

The rules were challenged at the IHC in November 2021.117 In May 2022, the court referred the rules to parliament for review by the new government to make amendments to ensure freedom of expression.118 The rules have yet to be presented in either the Senate or National Assembly as of the end of the coverage period. In the interim, the status of the rules is unclear, though some social media companies have started to register under them.119 In January 2022, it was reported that two companies, Joyo Technology Pakistan Pvt Ltd (Snack Video) and Bigo Service Pakistan Pvt Ltd (BIGO Live, Likee), had registered with the PTA and were thus subject to local laws.120 In June 2022, after the coverage period, Hong Kong–based MICO registered with the PTA.121

While 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.122

In June 2021, a draft of the Pakistan Media Authority Ordinance, which proposed centralizing regulatory control over electronic, print, and social media, was walked back by the government after significant pushback from media123 and civil society groups.124 The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting formed a committee to further discuss the proposal.125 It remained under consideration during the coverage period.

Apart from 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 religious reasons.126 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 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.127

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.128 Since 2012, successive administrations have sought to move from less sophisticated manual blocking toward technical filtering,129 despite widespread civil society protests.130 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,131 filtered political and social content at the national level on the PTCL network.132

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 1 / 4

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.133

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.134 In a 2018 survey of Pakistani journalists, 46 percent of those questioned reported self-censoring due to fears for their safety; 18 percent of respondents reported restricting their reporting to noncontroversial subjects.135 A number of journalists, activists, and other content creators have reported a “climate of extreme fear and self-censorship” in Pakistan.136

In a January 2021 report by Media Matters for Democracy, 9 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.137

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.138

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2 / 4

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.139

In April 2022, the new government disbanded the Digital Media Wing,140 which the PTI government had established under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 2020, with an annual budget of 42.79 million rupees ($242,420), to defend government decisions on social media. The wing was widely believed to also mobilize against PTI critics,141 and was known to coordinate with security services.142 Government agencies also coordinate with bloggers and influencers to promote progovernment narratives, also working with international bloggers to incentivize a positive image of the country.143

Separately, almost all mainstream political parties have their own social media wings and looser, wider networks which toe the party line and attack opponents.144

A 2020 report from the Oxford Internet Institute identified Pakistan as having coordinated teams with full-time staff members employed mostly by Pakistani political parties to manipulate the online information space, by attacking the opposition and suppressing critical content.145 The government allegedly has fake accounts run by both hired workers and bots that manipulate content on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and also use mass reporting techniques to silence critics.

In May 2021, Facebook removed a network of Facebook and Instagram accounts originating in Pakistan for coordinated and inauthentic behavior. Many of these account holders posed as independent media and posted political commentary about news stories, targeting domestic and international audiences.146 The network behind these attacks also had links to one Facebook had removed in April 2019,147 which Facebook said was linked to the Pakistani military and had posted content on or operated promilitary pages and pages related to Kashmir.148

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 a death penalty (see C2). In March 2021, women’s rights campaigners were the target of a coordinated campaign in which doctored photos showing protestors carrying blasphemous slogans were uploaded and shared online.149

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 2 / 3

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.150

Government advertisement revenue is disbursed selectively based on outlets’ editorial positions.151 Media groups Dawn and Jang, known to be critical of the government, have had their advertisements suspended in the past, leading to downsizing in both groups.

Outside of obligations imposed under Section 38 of 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 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. 152

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 2 / 4

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.153 Over the years, many digital, nonlegacy news outlets154 and content creators have emerged on applications like YouTube and TikTok. Encouragingly, video-based social media platforms have enabled content creation in regional languages and by creators regardless of literacy levels.155

However, content online is largely dominated by users with the greatest access—generally those in urban areas with the means to afford service. While there are several outlets producing content in regional languages, there is still a disproportionate amount of Urdu- and English-language content. Social taboos and the criminalization of same-sex relations means that local content addressing the interests of LGBT+ people is limited, and some people avoid mobilization around their identities as a result.156 The design of platforms popular in Pakistan sometimes do not account for accessibility for people with disabilities, including government websites.157 Furthermore, false information, often in coordinated and targeted campaigns, increasingly affects the reliability of content on the internet.158

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 3 / 6

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,159 restrictions to internet and mobile connectivity, and restrictive laws (see A3 and B3).

The internet has nevertheless provided a space for individuals to mobilize on political and social issues. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, students used a combination of physical gatherings and online hashtags to protest government and university policies on remote learning.160

More importantly, the internet has provided space for individuals to discuss issues censored in mainstream media, though users mobilizing around controversial topics online increasingly face repercussions for their activism (see C3 and C7). Despite facing a complete blackout in print and electronic media, and though its activists have been arrested,161 the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has mobilized rallies across the country through its presence online.162 Feminists and women’s rights activists have also used the global #MeToo movement to expose the sexual misconduct of powerful men in Pakistan.

Online conversations around police brutality and unlawful detentions became more prevalent in Pakistan during the coverage period. Petitions filed to the Lahore and Islamabad High Courts called for a ban on the Aurat (Women’s) March held in March 2020 because of “immoral” and “obscene” content posted on social media related to the event.163 Organizers of the Aurat March were targeted in coordinated misinformation campaigns (see B5) and accused of blasphemy (see C3),164 forcing some to go underground.165

C Violations of User Rights

C1 0-6 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 / 6

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.”166 Exceptions for online spaces are codified under section 37 of PECA.167 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. However, some rulings have affirmed online expression and other fundamental rights. In April 2022, the IHC ruled the PECA provision on online defamation unconstitutional and invalidated an ordinance that sought to expand the scope of the clause (see C2). Previously, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutional right to free expression and press freedom in a February 2019 ruling that the government could not restrict the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, expression, and press beyond the limitations defined in Article 19.168

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.169 The applicability of international law in local courts is a contentious issue. Pakistan is a dualist country, making international treaties only legally binding once they are specifically incorporated into local law.

The federal government and Sindh provincial government passed journalist protection bills during the coverage period. Both laws include online content creators and bloggers in their provisions.170

C2 0-4 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 / 4

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.171 The law also punishes preparing or disseminating electronic communications that glorify terrorism or information that is likely to advance religious, ethnic, or sectarian hatred, 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.172 The criminal defamation section has been used to target journalists, dissidents, and survivors of sexual harassment.173

In February 2022, the government passed an ordinance amending PECA.174 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 PECA from three to five years. Civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, critiqued the ordinance for restricting freedom of expression175 and the national journalists’ union challenged it at the IHC.176 In April 2022, the court struck down the ordinance as unconstitutional, and also struck down a clause in Section 20 of PECA that deals with defamation.177 The Lahore court, in contrast, held Section 20 to be constitutional in March 2022.178 The Supreme Court will likely consider the conflicting judgments on the status of Section 20.179

In the past, the IHC has issued directions to include pornography and blasphemy as offences under the PECA, though no legal changes have been made to this effect.180

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 IHC ruled that those accused of posting blasphemous content on social media should be barred from leaving the country until their name is cleared.181 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 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.182 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.

The draft Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2020 criminalizes intentional defamation and ridiculing of the armed forces and imposes penalties of up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 500,000 rupees ($2,800).183 The law was approved by the Ministry of Law in September 2021.184 In July 2021, the government of Punjab rejected a bill passed by the provincial assembly that sought to criminalize misrepresenting the speech of a member of the parliament.185

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 1 / 6

People are frequently prosecuted for their online activities, often receiving harsh sentences. The death penalty was imposed in a case of online blasphemy during the coverage period, and previous cases in which the death penalty was imposed are under appeal.

There have been a number of blasphemy cases against users for allegedly criticizing Islam online.186 In January 2022, a woman was sentenced to death for allegedly sharing blasphemous material on WhatsApp and Facebook, including caricatures of religious figures; she said she had been entrapped into a religious discussion after she refused the advances of the complainant in the case.187 In September 2021, a journalist was arrested for blasphemy on social media, likely in retaliation for reporting regarding local police misconduct; he was released in October.188

In addition, death penalty convictions from the previous coverage period remain pending or on appeal. In January 2021, an antiterrorism court (ATC), which is not open to the public or observers, sentenced three men to death and a fourth man to 10 years in prison in a case of online blasphemy.189 The IHC castigated the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in November 2021 for its alleged inaction in prosecuting blasphemy cases, despite repeated misuses of the law.190

In September 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; Parvaiz’s lawyer stated they would appeal the sentence.191 In December 2019, academic and former Fulbright scholar Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death by a court for allegedly committing blasphemy verbally and on Facebook.192 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 March 2021.193

Political speech, such as criticism of the government, judiciary, or the armed forces, is sometimes subject to legal action.194 In 2020 and 2021, at least 23 journalists were targeted under PECA, according to the media rights group Freedom Network.195 In August 2021, the FIA arrested Amir Mir, who runs the online outlet Googly News TV, and Imran Shafqat, a YouTube journalist, on allegations pertaining to criticism of the Pakistan Army and the judiciary, citing charges under PECA and the criminal code.196

The Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of this systemic harassment of journalists in August 2021,197 but the case was dismissed within a matter of days on jurisdictional grounds.198 In April 2022, the IHC ordered the Interior Ministry to open an inquiry into the misuse of PECA by FIA officials.199

In the wake of the change in government after the vote of no confidence against former prime minister Imran Khan, eight PTI workers and the PTI’s social media head were arrested and harassed by the cybercrime wing of the FIA for their alleged involvement in coordinating social media activity that criticized the army and other state institutions.200

In November 2021, the FIA reported arresting 50 people for “spreading extremism” on social media via a “cyber patrol,” though the activities of the alleged extremists and the laws they were charged under remained unclear.201

Internet users are occasionally arrested for everyday activities. In July 2021, for example, four TikTok users were detained in Multan under a public order law for filming videos “on the dialogues of films and movies.“202

In late 2021, the Punjab Environment Protection Department (EPD), despite deteriorating air quality in many cities across Pakistan, asked the FIA to take action against alleged “fake/unauthorized data of air quality” on social media.203 Several users were arrested and charged for sharing unverified information on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.204 For example, one man was reportedly arrested in Lahore in March 2020 after he stated on social media that someone in his family had contracted the virus.205

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1 / 4

Requirements that users link their internet and mobile connections to their national identity card limit anonymous use of the internet.206 Increasingly stringent security measures mean that users must register fingerprints along with other identifying information when applying for WLL internet packages and mobile service.207 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.208

The government has previously moved to restrict encrypted communication. In June 2020, the PTA announced that it would instruct internet users to register their VPNs or face legal action, and the agency introduced an online portal for VPN registration in October 2020.209 Although there have been no crackdowns on unregistered VPNs, users have reported intermittent throttling of registered VPNs; the PTA has denied restricting VPN connections.210

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.211

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1 / 6

Government surveillance is a serious concern for activists, bloggers, and media representatives, as well as ordinary internet users. 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 oversight.212

The government has deployed several tech-related measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic that threaten the right to privacy and could exacerbate surveillance. The government track-and-trace system adopted in May 2020, which is largely nontransparent and lacks judicial oversight, reportedly combines personal call-monitoring mechanisms and geofence tracking that identifies when a person leaves a given geographic location.213 Information collected through these efforts has reportedly been shared with other government agencies such as the local police and provincial governments.

Also, in March 2020, the PTA confirmed that it uses mobile-tower tracking in order to identify phones of people who could have been exposed to the virus, and to send them a “CoronaAlert” text message.214 The government stopped using another contract-tracing application, COVID-19 Gov PK, after major security gaps were exposed.215 The National Information Technology Board (NITB) launched a new Pass Track App in May 2021 to facilitate contact tracing of inbound passengers to Pakistan.216

In October 2019, the news outlet Coda Story reported on a 2.5 billion-rupee ($14.2 million) government contract from December 2018 with Canada-headquartered surveillance technologies firm Sandvine, for a national “web-monitoring system.”217 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.218 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.

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.219

The Fair Trial Act, passed in 2013,220 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.221

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.222 Data from NADRA and telecommunications companies, as well as police records, are reportedly sold online, including on Facebook and WhatsApp,223 as was reported in June 2020.224 In November 2021, the FIA revealed that NADRA’s biometric data had been compromised and was being used to sell fake SIM cards.225

Pakistanis are also vulnerable to surveillance from overseas intelligence agencies. In June 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.”226

C6 0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1 / 6

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.227

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 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. Furthermore, regulations introduced in March 2018 require all Wi-Fi hotspot service providers to retain user data, including users’ names, national identity card or passport number, mobile phone number, time of login and log-off, IP address, media access control (MAC) address, and internet access log.228

Telecommunications companies, ISPs, and SIM card vendors are required to authenticate the Computerized National Identity Card details of prospective customers with NADRA before providing service.229 After a reregistration drive in 2014,230 the government added a biometric thumb impression to the registration requirements for SIM cards.231 Twenty-six million SIM cards that failed to meet the new requirement were subsequently blocked in 2015.232

The new 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.233 In August 2020, the National Assembly passed the Mutual Legal Assistance (Criminal Matters) Act 2020,234 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.235

Technology companies have previously complied with government requests for user data. Between July and December 2021, Facebook complied with 23 percent of the government’s 1,458 requests for user data, which related to 2,063 accounts.236 Twitter complied with none of the 17 requests it received in the same period.237 Registration under the 2021 rules 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.238 The latest version of the bill was released in August 2021 and approved by the cabinet in February 2022, but had not been presented in parliament as of the end of the coverage period.239

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities? 1 / 5

Users continue to face intimidation, blackmail, 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 has used this practice on social media activists.

In April 2021, social media activist Sarmad Sultan went missing for nearly 24 hours. During that time, his Twitter account was also taken down temporarily.240 He was “returned” after the public expressed outrage on social media and political figures, including the minister for human rights, intervened.241 In November 2020, columnist and social media activist Bayazid Kharoti went missing a day before he was arrested in Quetta on charges of “meddling in the work of police.”242 Senior journalist Matiullah Jan, host of a prominent YouTube channel, was abducted in July 2020 in broad daylight in Islamabad. He was “returned” hours later after CCTV footage of his abduction caused widespread outcry on social media.243

Previous years have seen more extreme repression. In June 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.244

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.245

In May 2021, journalist Asad Ali Toor was assaulted by three men who broke into his apartment. Toor stated that his attackers identified themselves as part of the Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which is Pakistan’s military intelligence service. Toor had started a prominent YouTube channel in December 2020 and quickly gained 24,000 followers. No arrests have been made in his attack. In April 2021, journalist Absar Alam was shot outside his home in Islamabad. Before the shooting, Alam had received a summons from the FIA after he posted statements criticizing the Pakistani military’s interference in politics on his social media account, which has around 90,000 followers. The summons was eventually dropped because the FIA did not provide evidence or a copy of the complaint to the IHC.

According to the Digital Rights Foundation, there has been an exponential rise in online gender-based violence in Pakistan, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.246 Organizers and participants of the 2020 Aurat March, which celebrated International Women’s Day, were subjected to intense online attacks, including death and rape threats.247 In September 2020, women in journalism across Pakistan released a joint statement with over 150 signatures stating that the online harassment they faced—often initiated by the PTI—had a significant mental toll and impeded their ability to complete their professional duties.248 Women who are victims of online harassment, in the absence of other resources, sometimes consider suicide. In September 2020, a young woman died by suicide after receiving threats from a man who was jailed for posting her private photos on social media.249 In another case, a First Information Report (FIR) was registered against an official in Punjab, who was later appointed minister of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, for sending “sexually explicit videos” to a man.250

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.251

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 April 2022, three brothers killed their sister after they saw a Facebook picture of her with a man.252 In May 2020, two women were killed in North Waziristan after a video of them with a man was circulated online.253 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 2016.254 Her brother acknowledged killing her for dishonoring the family name and was later acquitted despite the visibility the case received.255

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 0 / 3

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.256 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.257 The software used in these attacks, Crimson, has previously been used against Indian military and diplomatic figures.258

There were also reported breaches of data originally collected for government initiatives and hacks of state websites and databases. In October 2021, the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) experienced a cyberattack on its servers, though no financial loss was reported.259 In August 2021, the data center of the Federal Board of Revenue—which contains data regarding all taxpayers in the country—was hacked.260 In May 2022, the MOITT stated that it had experienced an attempted cyberattack on its National Telecom Corporation system.261 In the absence of a data-protection law, those affected have limited opportunities for remedy (see C6).

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.262 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.263 State officials have also come under malware attacks through fake smartphone apps, according to a 2019 report by Blackberry Researchers.264

In light of the Pegasus revelations, the government approved and passed the National Cyber Security Policy 2021 in July 2021.265 Though wide in its ambit, the policy did not institute any concrete measures and it is unclear how implementation proceeded during the coverage period.

Cross-border cyberattacks between Pakistan and India continue.266 In August 2020, the Inter-Service Public Relations revealed that there had been a cyberattack targeting military and government officials allegedly conducted by Indian spy networks.267 After tensions between the two nations escalated in early 2019 following a deadly suicide attack in Pulwama, a city in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a number of Pakistani sites were allegedly targeted by Indian hackers,268 including the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.269

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.270 The PTA has claimed to be developing Critical Telecom Data and Infrastructure Security Regulations (CTDISR), which would have provisions on issues including cybersecurity incident management, monitoring, malware protection, data protection, and confidentiality of information. 271 However, a draft of the regulations has yet to be shared publicly.

Data breaches of private companies are becoming increasingly common. In July 2020, Swvl, a bus-sharing service, suffered from a security breach in which customer data, including names, emails, and phone numbers, was leaked.272 An estimated 4.2 million data records were compromised in the Swvl breach.273 Given that there is no legal obligation for companies to disclose breaches, many similar breaches go unreported.