Digital rights activists and internet users across the country have been left scratching their heads following Peshawar’s ban on TikTok, even after the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had entered successful negotiations with the popular Chinese video-sharing mobile app.

After Peshawar High Court’s order today to ban popular TikTok for hosting “immoral” content, the Pakistani public has been up in arms over the controversial decision. TikTok became the number one trend on Twitter following the announcement, with people expressing their disappointment, agreement, or confusion with the development.

TikTok had earlier been banned by the PTA in October 2020, with the order reversed 10 days later after negotiations between the PTA and TikTok’s management. According to a press release by the PTA, the video-sharing platform could resume working in Pakistan if all objectional content was removed from it.

Given the understanding established between Pakistani authorities and TikTok, the latest ban invites questions about why a ban was again necessary.

The Correspondent spoke with Hija Kamran, Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy and editor at Digital Rights Monitor, regarding the implications of the latest ban.

TCP: What are your thoughts in response to this order by the Peshawar High Court?

Hija Kamran: There is confusion because after the PTA’s announcement a couple of months ago—that they had sent a notice to TikTok, and TikTok management had agreed to the negotiation of taking off supposedly immoral or indecent content from the app—we thought the matter was dealt with. We don’t know where this development is coming from.

There needs to be clarity about how this plays out, or how it has gotten to this point after the agreement and what the PTA demands. We are still waiting on more details regarding the judgement, so perhaps it will be clearer once the whole judgement is acquired.

TCP: Do you think this judgement holds any weight, given the PTA’s ban in the past was reversed? Can the Supreme Court overturn this? Or is PTA required to follow the Peshawar court’s decision?

Hija Kamran: It does hold weight because this is an order from the High Court, which is why TikTok has been banned in Peshawar. This can also be challenged in the Supreme Court, which may either decide to keep the app blocked, or give a ruling grounded in people’s fundamental rights of access to information or freedom of expression. But this also depends on whether somebody challenges it in the Supreme Court at all.

TCP: In case this order materialises in a widespread ban, what does this mean for social media apps and users in Pakistan?

Hija Kamran: Media reports state that the ban has taken place in Peshawar, and will not be removed till objectionable content is removed. The judge remarked that the app should remain blocked till the authorities at TikTok respond.

Again, since PTA and TikTok had already negotiated in October, I don’t know what they are trying to achieve with another round of conversations with the TikTok management and what is going to be different this time. This needs to be clarified.

With respect to what bans like this mean for social media apps and users in Pakistan, it of course is a blatant infringement on people’s rights to access the internet. At the end of the day, we do have a fundamental right to access information and freedom of expression, and these are all extended to online platforms as well. So if you go about blocking these platforms, in the name of “immorality” and “indecency”—terms which no one has ever defined—you are basing your actions on vague reasoning and infringing upon people’s basic rights.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to upholding people’s rights and doing internet governance? Whenever internet governance has been done by any lawmaker, we have seen that in extension they are always, always infringing on people’s rights. There is no way they can also not stifle people’s rights when they are regulating the internet.

Since the internet is also a new space for these people to regulate, their preconceived notions about morality and decency and how the internet works are a little conflicted right now. They don’t really understand how the internet works.

In terms of its impact on how people use the internet, keeping in mind the recent wave of censorship in Pakistan, this will be reflected in how people access the internet right now. Such restrictions will extend to people self-censoring, as well, in conversations on social media. They will always be re-evaluating what they can and cannot say, and how it will be perceived, so freedom of expression and access to information will definitely be curtailed.

On top of that, TikTok is essentially a platform that is famous amongst and most used by people in the working class, as well as content creators. Not only are you not letting people access this platform, but also controlling a mainstream platform that is used by the public that is not usually found on Twitter or Facebook. They are using TikTok because it’s a medium that requires fewer words and more action or vocals. That is convenient for people who might not be well-equipped to write coherent articles, tweets or posts, etc.  

TikTok is also a tool for generating a lot of people’s income, so in addition to infringing on people’s right to information and freedom of expression, you are also curtailing their right to do business or earn money.

Such concerns are all connected, and they play out whenever any platform is banned by any means whatsoever using vague justifications.


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