PMLN claims it will requisition a joint session of Parliament to have the new laws struck down
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Monday urged Pakistan to repeal its “draconian” cybercrimes act and described the incumbent government’s amendment to it as the latest in a “concerted campaign to restrict freedom of expression and stifle dissent.”
The global rights bodies, in a joint statement, noted that the latest amendment was in violation of Constitution of Pakistan, as has also been voiced by Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah. “PECA [Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act] has been used to silence freedom of expression on the pretext of combating ‘fake news,’ cybercrime, and misinformation,” said Nadia Rahman, acting deputy regional director for South Asia at Amnesty International. “This amendment not only violates the Pakistan Constitution, but also puts anyone who questions the government or other state institutions at further risk. It particularly endangers journalists, human rights defenders, and political opponents who run the risk of prosecution for merely doing their jobs,” she added.
On Feb. 18, 2022, President Arif Alvi promulgated an ordinance amending PECA to make online “defamation” of authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense. Under the ordinance, anyone accused of “defamation” on social media could be arrested without warrant and remain imprisoned until their trial concludes. The law calls for all trials to be completed within six months, but allows for extending them if the court deems it necessary, essentially allowing citizens to remain imprisoned on the basis of unproven allegations.
Noting that PECA, in its original 2016 form, had already contained broad provisions criminalizing defamation of “natural persons,” the joint statement stressed that the new ordinance had expanded those provisions to include criticism of government bodies and the military by inserting a new definition of “person” that includes “any company, association, or body of persons, … institution, organization, authority or any other body established by the Government under any law or otherwise.”
It highlighted that the amendment had made defamation a nonbailable offense, and increased the maximum prison term, if convicted, from three to five years. “It also expands the definition of those who can initiate criminal proceedings for defamation, allowing any person or institution to register the complaint,” it added.
Recalling that Pakistan had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression, the joint statement noted that Article 19 explicitly allows for restrictions on freedom of expression to protect the reputations of others, but only when absolutely necessary and narrowly drawn. “Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch oppose all criminal defamation laws as a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations that chills freedom of expression,” it said. “Expanding PECA’s already overbroad criminal defamation provisions to online statements about government institutions violates Pakistan’s international obligations,” it added.
The statement also lamented that the government had prevented public scrutiny of the amendments prior to promulgating the ordinance by “excluding civil society groups and the private sector from consultation on the amendments.” It noted that the new law’s requirement for all cases to be concluded within six months also appeared to be ill-planned, as it was “not evident how an already overburdened court system will safeguard people from unfair trials and poor evidence gathering.”
Patricia Gossman, Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch, said PECA “neither protects the public from legitimate cybercrime concerns nor respects fundamental human rights.” She warned that the new amendments would further “embed violations of basic rights with a thin veneer of legality.”
Highlighting that the IHC had restrained the Federal Investigative Agency from making any arrests under the ordinance, the statement said this “temporary relief” was insufficient to mitigate the grave impact that the amendment would have on Pakistan’s already imperiled freedom of expression by “potentially putting anyone at risk of criminal charges for expressing their views online.”
Stressing that PECA was a draconian law that contains “vague and overly broad offenses,” the statement recalled that it had been repeatedly criticized by Pakistan’s human rights defenders and civil society organizations for criminalizing legitimate forms of expression based on supposed national security concerns and to protect majoritarian interpretations of Islam. “Muzzling online and offline expression is part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent,” it added.
“The amendment, in effect, permits authorities to digitally police what people are saying online and levy heavy punishments if they do not like what they are saying,” said Gossman. “Laws should be centered around protecting human rights, not insulating the government from legitimate criticism. The authorities should either swiftly repeal PECA and this amendment entirely, or substantially amend them to align them with international human rights standards,” Rahman added.
Within Pakistan, the new legislation continues to provoke legal challenges, with the Balochistan Union of Journalists and Bar Council filing a petition at the Balochistan High Court against the PECA amendments. Similar petitions are already pending in the Islamabad High Court and the Lahore High Court.
On Monday, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) announced that it had decided requisition a joint session of Parliament to table a resolution seeking the dismissal of the ordinance. PMLN president, and Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Shahbaz Sharif has claimed his would repeal the “dark, authoritarian and anti-media laws that violate constitutional freedoms of freedom of expression and access to information” if it comes to power again.