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Social Media Regulatory Authority: Will It Work?



Islamabad (Imran Y. CHOUDHRY) :- Former Press Secretary to the President, Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France, Former MD, SRBC Mr. Qamar Bashir analysis :
Personally for me and most patriotic Pakistanis, the army stands as the bulwark of a nation’s sovereignty, defending its people and safeguarding its borders against external threats. It embodies the collective strength and resilience of a nation, serving as a symbol of unity and national pride. It embodies a profound appreciation for the soldiers’ selflessness and bravery in the face of adversity. Equally significant is the reciprocal relationship between the army and its people, where mutual respect and affection foster a bond essential for the nation’s stability and progress. As the guardians of national security, the army’s love for its people and their reciprocal love form the bedrock upon which the prosperity and well-being of the nation rest.

As children, we were taught by our parents and teachers to hold the army in high esteem, instilling in us a deep sense of love, respect, and pride for our valiant armed forces. I fondly recall the days when we eagerly gathered to witness the army parade at Ayub Stadium in Quetta, enthusiastically saluting the passing army vehicles and feeling a sense of honor as the soldiers returned our salutes. Those moments filled our hearts with admiration for what we believed, and still believe, to be the best military force in the world.

However, recent events have left us heartbroken and disillusioned. Witnessing army vehicles, once symbols of protection and security, subjected to derogatory slogans and even targeted by violence from the crowd has shaken our faith and filled our hearts with sadness and grief.

While soul-searching about why political leaders, certain segments of the general public, elements in Balochistan and KP provinces, and social media activists criticize and denigrate the army and its leadership, one glaring fact became apparent: the army is not being criticized for its core function of defending the country from external aggression, but rather for issues unrelated to its primary mandate.

The army has faced criticism for its alleged interference in political affairs, purported human rights abuses in conflict regions like Balochistan and FATA, media censorship, and its economic dominance across sectors, raising concerns about monopolies and lack of accountability. It is perceived to prioritize security interests over diplomatic solutions, handling Balochistan insurgency and imbalance of power favoring the military over civilian institutions. . Debates persist regarding human rights implications of the army’s counterterrorism operations and its involvement in regional conflicts, such as its support for militant groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The criticism directed towards the army has intensified, becoming more aggressive and vitriolic, particularly on social media platforms. Social media activists, both within the country and abroad, seem to have free reign to express their grievances against the army without fear of repercussions.

During a recent press conference, the Director-General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR) extensively addressed the harmful use of social media to spread negativity against the army. He warned that existing regulations would be rigorously enforced, and new laws would be proposed by the parliament to curb, silence, and penalize those who were spreading malicious content against the army.

The tone and demeanor of the DG-ISPR strongly suggested that legislation to regulate social media had likely already been drafted and would soon be presented to parliament. Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that the Prime Minister had approved the establishment of a social media authority despite the absence of formal legislation. This move prompted criticism, with one Supreme Court judge remarking that the government appeared to be hastily prioritizing the creation of a social media regulatory authority over pressing issues such as climate change.

Unlike PEMRA, which possesses a range of punitive measures to discipline traditional media, the tasks facing the social media authority will be considerably more challenging. While PEMRA can impose hefty fines, revoke licenses, ensure compliance with codes of conduct, and address violations through fines, suspensions, or license cancellations, the social media authority may lack similar leverage due to many pressing reasons.

Social media is difficult to harness due to its globalized nature, constant evolution, and the prevalence of anonymity and operating across national borders. The platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it difficult to apply consistent regulations due to varying legal jurisdictions, and the ever-changing landscape of social media renders regulations obsolete quickly, as new features and formats emerge.

The anonymity and pseudonymity afforded to users further complicate matters, hindering efforts to hold individuals accountable for harmful content, particularly in regions with lax regulations.

The social media platforms rely heavily on algorithms which can inadvertently amplify harmful content or create echo chambers, making it difficult to regulate their impact.

Besides, enforcing social media regulations can be resource-intensive especially in a poor country like Pakistan, requiring dedicated teams and sophisticated technology.

This necessitates adopting a comprehensive protocol for disseminating the army’s perspective in the public domain through civilian or political leadership equipped with the necessary skills and training to engage with the media in a manner that minimizes controversy and backlash. Any potential backlash could then be directed towards the civilian leadership, thereby insulating the army from direct criticism.

Later, It should minimize its overt supremacy over civilian institutions, such as the government and judiciary and ensure a clear delineation of authority between military and civilian spheres.

Simultaneously, the army should prioritize transparency and accountability, particularly in matters concerning human rights. Any allegations of abuses must be thoroughly investigated and addressed in accordance with international standards, fostering trust and legitimacy.

Economically, the army’s activities at least overtly should be subject to civilian oversight to prevent monopolies and ensure fair competition.

The army should adopt a more professional and scientific approach towards public relations and should minimize and finally stop altogether its overt interaction with the public on political affairs or governance.

Above all, ISPR’s public relations strategy, tactics, and methodology are attracting unfavorable criticism across both traditional and social media platforms. Urgent action is required to initiate a comprehensive reset of ISPR’s approach for nurturing positive relationships with its publics.

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