Political leaders, human rights bodies and media organisations have condemned the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government for introducing “draconian” amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, saying it is a blatant move to stifle media independence, freedom of speech and dissenting voices in the country.
President Dr Arif Alvi on Sunday signed two ordinances amending PECA 2016, and the Elections Act, 2017, after approval of the federal cabinet. The changes made in the electronic crimes act have been made under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022.
Under the ordinance, the definition of a “person” has been broadened to include any company, association, institution, organisation, authority, or any other. Furthermore, anyone found guilty of attacking a person’s “identity” will now be sentenced to five years instead of three years without bail.
The ordinance also states the informant or the complainant shall be “aggrieved person, his authorised representative, or his guardian, where such person is a minor or a member of the public in respect of a public figure or a holder of public office”.
Cases falling under PECA will be supervised by a high court and the trial court will have to conclude the case within six months.
“The court shall submit a monthly progress report of any pending trial to the high court concerned and shall give reasons for the inability of the court to expeditiously conclude the trial,” says the ordinance.
Apart from sending the report to the high courts, copies of the progress report will be sent to the law secretary if the case is registered in the Islamabad Capital Territory. However, if a case is registered in a province, then the copies of the report will be submitted to the “provincial secretaries of prosecution departments, the prosecutor general or advocate general”.
The ordinance also authorises the high court to issue “fresh timelines” of a case if it finds the “reasons” given by the trial court “plausible” and beyond its control. The ordinance also empowers the high courts to summon federal or provincial government officers to remove any “difficulties, hindrances and obstacles” it finds in the case.
If the law secretaries find that the case was delayed due to the “presiding officer or any of its functionaries” then they may inform the high court. If the high court is of the view that the delay in the disposal of a trial is attributable to the presiding officer of the court or any other court functionary then they can initiate or “direct commencement of appropriate disciplinary proceedings”.
The ordinance also empowers the chief justice of every high court to nominate a judge along with other officers.
The government’s move drew immediate condemnation from opposition leaders, human rights organisations, civil society activists, and media organisations.
The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said that the legislation through ordinance amounts to denying a national debate and depriving parliament of its constitutional right of legislation and condemned misuse of all such laws to silence dissent.
Both the opposition parties lashed out at the government for promulgating the PECA 2016, while rejecting the amendment to social media laws, fearing that the laws would only be used against the opposition and media. They vowed to challenge ordinance in parliament.
PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz Sharif tweeted: “Whatever laws this government is making are meant to silence the media and the opposition, but these laws are going to be used against Imran & Company. Don’t say that you hadn’t been warned.”
Commenting on the promulgation of the presidential ordinance, former Senate chairman and PPP leader Mian Raza Rabbani said the amendments to the electronic crimes law amount to denying a national debate and depriving parliament of its constitutional right to legislate.
Rabbani said since 2018, the government has taken systematic steps to apply censor to online content through the,“Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020” and the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020”. “Such Rules were opposed by journalists and digital rights groups,” he said.
He said that the proposed legislation converts bailable offences to non-bailable offences. “The punishment for defaming a person or an institution on social media is being increased to five years from two years and this is condemned,” he added.
He said this is placing fetters on the fundamental rights of the citizens and cannot be done without a national debate i.e. through legislation in parliament.
“The president should not have signed the ordinances, as under Article 50, Constitution, 1973, he is a part of parliament, here parliament is being denied the right to legislate and fundamental rights are being curtailed outside of parliament,” he said.
In a joint statement, Pakistan’s top media bodies – All Pakistan Newspaper Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Pakistan Broadcasters Association and AEMEND – said that they will take all legal actions to challenge any attempt to curb media’s independence and its right to raise voice against any steps to curb the freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Constitution of Pakistan.
PFUJ President Shahzada Zulfiqar and Secretary General Nasir Zaidi said that it is alarming that instead of reforming existing laws to enforce constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and right to information, the laws are being amended further to make them more coercive aimed at eroding these rights.
“All the stakeholders, including the media community and civil society have been agitating for and demanding withdrawal of black clauses in PECA 2016 that are against civil liberties and basic human rights ensured in both the United Nations Charter and the Constitution of Pakistan, but it appears that the government is now making the laws more regressive in the name of dignity and security of institutions,” they said.
“There are already clear provisions in the constitution protecting the integrity and dignity of the judiciary and the armed forces, so why the need for further coercive measures,” they asked.
The PFUJ leadership pointed out that the courts can use all available relevant laws to punish anyone involved in intentionally vilifying or defaming any institution with a mala fide purpose while any citizen can be prosecuted under the Defamation Act for any similar grievance, and therefore there was no need to amend PECA for enhancing punishments.
“It appears that the government is driven by mala fide intentions as the proposed amendments, especially without any parliamentary inputs, are designed to further shrink the space for freedom of press and expression which is already deeply compromised as evinced by various media freedom indexes,” the statement said.
The PFUJ leaders said despite this if the government is still determined to introduce such harsh provisions and punishments then people would be forced to conclude that the PTI-led government is on a mission to silence all critical voices.
The PFUJ leaders vowed to challenge this proposed ordinance in court besides launching a countrywide protest against its issuance. “This government action is unwarranted and deplorable and undermines democratic, political and media freedoms,” they added.
In a statement, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that the amendments to PECA are undemocratic and will inevitably be used to clamp down on dissenters and critics of the government and state institutions.
“HRCP deplores the proposed laws that will increase the jail term for online criticism of the state by citizens from two to five years, and make it a non-bailable offence. Not only is this legislation undemocratic, but it will also inevitably be used to clamp down on dissenters and critics of the government and state institution. All government and state functionaries are reminded that they are accountable to citizens as elected representatives and public servants, respectively. It is their job to heed criticism. With other problematic laws in place to counter defamation, the proposed ordinance must be rolled back immediately,” it said.
‘AMENDMENTS SEEK TO PREVENT FAKE NEWS’
Federal Minister for Law and Justice Barrister Farogh Naseem rejected criticism against the media gags, saying the ordinance is only aimed at preventing dissemination of fake news by making it a criminal offence as per the constitution “to foil the designs of the enemies of Pakistan”.
Addressing a press conference on Sunday, Naseem said that the ordinance was not aimed at targeting bona fide working journalists. He said that legislation was necessary to stop fake news, adding that fake news was published that the First Lady had left home. Some people, who are not in fact journalist, are claiming to be journalists, he said.
He said false propaganda had been spread in the past, particularly against the sitting judges.
“It is high time that whatever wrong has been committed in the past shouldn’t happen anymore as Pakistan should be put on the right path and its foundations should remain correct,” he said.
The minister claimed that the latest ordinance didn’t deprive anyone of their right to do criticism against the government.