KARACHI: Freedom Network [FN], Pakistan’s first media watchdog organization, joined November 7 the Alliance For Access, a nationwide coalition of civil society organizations, corporations, media houses, telecommunication companies, academics and student groups to promote Open Access in Pakistan.
Other civil society groups joining the Alliance include Aurat Foundation, Baanhn Beli, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), Civic Action Resources (CAR), Institute for Research Advocacy & Development (IRADA), Centre For Governance & Public Accountability (CGPA), Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) Individual Land, Punjab Lok Sujag & Sustainable Educational & Environmental Development Balochistan (SEED) and Shehri.
“We are thrilled to announce that we have joined Alliance For Access to promote Open Access in Pakistan. The alliance is an initiative of Bolo Bhi, a research focused advocacy group for policy change, with the dual goals of promoting open access and protecting fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression,” a statement issued by Bolo Bhi on behalf of the Alliance.
It read: “The alliance aims to bring together individuals and organizations to a single platform to discuss, highlight and advocate on issues related to internet policy, governance, censorship, regulation, surveillance and digital rights.”
Newly-launched media group Express Media Group announced it was joining the alliance as media partners committed to freedom of speech on media & digital spaces. Bolo Bhi also launched a 12 episode TV show in partnership with Business Plus.
As a rights organization, Bolo Bhi seeks to safeguard citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of expression and personal privacy. The government often attempts to restrict citizens’ right to access and communication under the banner of national security; therefore it is imperative that citizens come together to compel the government to protect and preserve their fundamental rights. We strongly believe that a participatory approach that involves all segments of the society is key to open access.
“This the first round of announcements for civil society groups committing to the cause of increased accessed and fundamental rights to freedom of speech, expression and privacy in Pakistan. We are delighted that the first round of civil society organizations represents all provinces from Sindh to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and we are open to new members joining and committing to the cause,” said Bolo Bhi Director Sana Saleem. “From cellular network shutdowns to ongoing concerns about blocking and filtering, we continue to face multiple free expression and privacy challenges that require a collective response from civil society, media and the private sector.”
FN Executive Director Iqbal Khattak said Freedom Network stands for freedom of expression for all citizens of the state and guarantee of safety for those who exercise dissent. He said that access to information strengthens freedom of expression and promoting open access and open communication policy are the best way to strengthen it. Khattak added that in a pluralistic country like Pakistan open access policies need to be supported and expressed confidence that the Alliance for Access will provide a strong platform to push for open access policies in Pakistan.
Zahid Abdullah, Program Manager, Transparency and Right to Information, Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives said that “While state of Pakistan, like any other state, has legitimate security needs that should be protected, however, national security should not be used as an excuse to curb freedom of expression guaranteed under the constitution of Pakistan. He also said a culture of proactive disclosure of information needs to be promoted and public bodies should share maximum information about their functions, complaint registration mechanisms, services and budgetary details with public through websites and by displaying such information at prominent places on their premises.”
“Our successive governments are so security paranoid that, not content with erecting barriers on the roads, now they want to erect barriers on the Information Highway as well. It is a throwback to the ages when books were burnt. With potholes, speed bumps and barriers on the information highway, we will never reach our destination.” Dr. Raza Gardezi noted on behalf of SHEHRI.
Muhammad Aftab Alam, Executive Director IRADA remarked “IRADA is committed to strive for openness in governance processes and for improved communications between state and citizens. While citizens should engage themselves with the state, the state should provide access to the citizens to participate in the governance processes. Open government should be promoted so that citizens can see through the processes and hold the government accountable through social audits and monitoring.”
On behalf of Punjab Log Shujag, Shafiq Butt expressed his commitment to joining the alliance “Access to public records guaranteed under the constitutional right (19-A) has always been restricted and blocked under the banner of “national security” and “national interest”. There must be “precise definition” of above two terms elaborating in details (item wise list) that what is “included” and “excluded” from “National Interest” and “National Security”. This will help in opening up a specific “mind set” of state functionaries and allowing them to respect citizens’ opinion. Punjab Lok Sujag hopes this network will open up a new regime for citizens to have access to public records. “
“Information is the lifeblood of democracy and the free flow of information a guarantor of access to pluralistic news, views, opinions and analysis, which in turn help develop an informed citizenry that can make informed choices,” said Adnan Rehmat, Director Media Development at Civic Action Resources.
“With a Constitution that puts democracy and an empowered citizenry at the heart of its mission statement, Pakistan does itself a disservice and contradicts its own mission statement if restrictions are placed on access to information, particularly online, while the world becomes increasingly wired and global development becomes closely tied to open access in the digital realm. There cannot be an effective civil society and an active citizenry participating in the country’s development mission if the digital citizens of Pakistan are hindered online through curbs on access,” Rehmat added.
“It’s exciting to be a part of an initiative that bring together civil society organizations that are hardcore in the areas of right to information & access to justice, it’s about time that civil society organizations come together fight for more openness, right to access reclaim our fundamental rights to speech & expression. I am specifically interested in gender & ICTs and how we can work together to highlight gender issues and bring more women online,” Nighat Dad, Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation said in her final remarks. Ms. Dad is also the civil society coordinator for the alliance.