by JAVERIA YOUNES 

FREEDOM of speech and expression form the bedrock upon which the pillars of democracy stand; this freedom allows the public to air grievances and voice dissent that can be made to reverberate in corridors of power. The new freedom of expression unleashed by the Internet goes far beyond politics. People relate to each other in new ways and can exchange their views through a medium that permits anonymity.

Now this paradigm of freedom is about to change in Pakistan thanks to the enactment of the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, 2015. Rights groups have declaimed that the Prevention of Electronic Crime (PEC) Bill has draconian provisions that will blatantly infringe on fundamental rights. The Pakistan State, already notorious for enactment of arbitrary laws, such as the Hudood (Sharia law), Blasphemy laws and the likes of the Protection of Pakistan Act, has added another Orwellian law to its list of unjust legislations. The State will use the act to actively muzzle freedom of expression in the only medium where this freedom is available to the public at large. Political satire, intellectual discourse and criticism of state actions are all at risk of being criminalised. The move may seriously jeopardise the right to freedom of speech as enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which is supposedly non-derogable, i.e. it cannot be suspended under any circumstances.

The provisions of the proposed law are arbitrary and unjust. The law “shall apply to all citizen wherever he may be” meaning that  every citizen of Pakistan, even if he or she is residing or working abroad, will be covered under its ambit. The law thus extends its tentacles to a Pakistani residing in a foreign country, who may write or share remarks that the government may feel are against the “glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.” Such provisions reduce the freedom of expression to a misnomer, a mere façade.

Instead of following the provisions of Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, which set a detailed plan for legislation against cybercrime and established guidelines so that the privacy of individuals is not jeopardised while apprehending criminals, the law enforcement agents have been given impunity to invade anyone’s online privacy and the right to remain anonymous.

Political analysts have denounced the draft law as a tool to silence dissent and the public mocking of political figures. Section 16 of the draft PECA law has broadened the scope of offence against the dignity of a natural person; now distorting a natural person’s face is deemed an offence. Such provisions will curtail freedom of expression. This may outlaw the leaking of a video showing corrupt acts of politician and law enforcement officials, through defining such disclosures as being injurious to the reputation of these public officials. The Chairman of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has admitted during the hearing of the case involving the blocking of YouTube that PTA does not have the technology to block access to one particular derogatory video, and that the only way to block access was therefore to block YouTube altogether. Crowdsourced websites such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Dailymotion and other social networking sites are thus increasingly at risk of being blocked completely in Pakistan for a single transmission, such as a photo, video or caricature shared by a single user.

Section 31 is the most controversial part of the 2015 PEC Bill. It states:

  1. Power to issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system:

(1) The Authority or any officer authorised by it in this behalf may direct any service provider, to remove any intelligence or block access to such intelligence, if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.

(2) The Federal Government may prescribe rules for adoption of standards and procedure by the Authority to monitor and block access and entertain complaints under this section. Until such procedures and standards are prescribed, the Authority shall monitor and block intelligence in accordance with the directions issued by the Federal Government.

The intent of the government in inserting this section is to legalise blocking powers, to exert control over the Internet and curtail freedom of expression. Rights groups and legal experts are censuring this section as a tool of oppression. The state is now extending its reach to the Internet, the only medium by which the urban populace may openly share their views and access credible information unavailable via the mainstream media. By using ambiguous terms such as “…in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence” the state is providing legal cover to institutional terror.

Strangling free speech on the Internet may backfire in a nation already sick of being muzzled and oppressed by the state. As is evident from a perusal of the Act and enactment of other draconian laws, Pakistan is fast becoming a totalitarian state. No state that denies its citizens the right to freedom of expression can last long. Such states are doomed to disintegrate and collapse under their own contradictory strangleholds. Thus, the government must ensure that its citizens are allowed the freedom to air their thought without fear of repercussion.

The sole purpose of this ambiguous law is to implicate persons and citizens who the state or law enforcement officers want to keep quiet in one frivolous case after another. The draft PECA bill, like any other criminal law enacted in Pakistan, has drawn a distinction in procedure of cognisable and non-cognisable offence. However, this is probably the first time that such a distinction has been made without defining what exactly constitutes the cognisable and non-bailable offence. Given such ambiguity, arrest and investigation without warrant should not be permitted.

Moreover, the ambiguity in the law has many loopholes rendering it toothless against culprits while implicating the innocent and unsuspecting. Given the inefficiency of prosecution, it is unlikely that the case against a malicious user can ever be proved beyond a shadow of doubt. However, this law has provided a mechanism for the law enforcement officer to arrest a person and seize the data on the pretext of national interest and the glory of Islam.

The law is a continuation of the enactment of draconian laws to oppress the masses into submission. The façade of a dummy democracy is being maintained by the state to hide its fascism.

Since the Nawaz Sharif government has come into power, the State appears to be turning against its own people. The law enforcement and intelligence agencies are being given complete impunity to maintain law and order in the country. However, the irony is that the situation is worsening. It is high time that the State rethinks its public policies and enacts people friendly laws so as not to alienate the Pakistani populace.