Pakistan Reader# 299, 26 February 2022
On 18 February, the government passed the “Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Act 2022.” Though the Act is aimed at curbing fake news, it also will muzzle the freedom of speech in the cyber domain. The Act has drawn criticisms from within. In his editorial for Dawn, Usama Khilji discussed the recent amendment as equivalent to the laws during martial law regimes and the rise of a digital dictatorship. All judicial representative bodies have also condemned the amendment and called for voicing and registering dissent. Sindh Judicial Bar Commission in their press release synonymised the public institutions and institution holders as ‘holy cows’ who cannot be insulted and ought to be respected.
The “Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Act 2022: A brief note
Article XL of the PECA Act 2016 has been amended which has broadened the definition of person to include “any company, association, or body of persons whether incorporated or not, institution, organization, authority or any other body established by the Government under any law or otherwise.”
By dropping the word ‘natural’ in the definition of the person, it will now include public bodies and their criticism. The misinformation or defamation of public institutions may as well be taken up by the FIA and various other agencies. While the amendment aims to bring accountability to irresponsible online conduct, it does not accurately interpret any defamatory content.
The various investigating bodies – the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), and provincial agencies, are empowered to take cognizance of the online content.
The duration for a judicial authority to deal with the case has been extended from two months to six months. This means, by the time judiciary provides a rational take on the expression of social media conduct of any individual, the individual could have been tried and tortured by all possible means. It would damage the moral conviction, the courage of the person tried under the amended law. Hence, the loophole is weaponizing the oversight of social media instead of regulating it. This will not help in providing the scope for debate and may even lead to the flight of strong-willed and honest voices from Pakistan.
First, the Amendment validates space for authoritarian overlords in the digital space, who will have the power to cherry-pick anyone being critical of the government, its policies and its personnel. The act has created superficial rights and dignity for public offices and public officers which are not mandated by the constitution of Pakistan. Recently, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, in his remark on petitions also pointed out that the existence of public offices is to serve people and build confidence through governance and not to manufacture confidence.
Second, traditional journalism in Pakistan is heavily censored and social media has provided the life for journalism in Pakistan. With the amendment, internet journalism could be termed as fake or defamatory content. The ambiguity in interpreting something as fake news will further reduce the scope for debate and framing critical questions. Instead of providing scope for self-correction on part of the journalists engaged in online social media, censoring and prescription will handicap online journalism.
Third, the Amendment will muzzle social media. Individual icons and even normal citizens have published multifaceted information about themselves and developments around the world. Qandeel Baloch’s case is an example. She openly questioned sexuality and upturned the role of a woman and izzat (honour). Social media blends the class, caste, and religious boundaries and unites various groups of people through affirmation and nods (‘e-cognizance’) of likes and retweets which spreads the information to larger networks. Aurat March is another example, which used social media to rally people. The PECA Act could be seen as a pre-emptive step by ‘authorities’ to avoid any grassroots-led movement from fructifying.
Fourth, technology and social media are enablers of vast information and empower the masses. Technological evolution makes people more conscious and broadens their horizons of experiencing and expressing power. This decentralization of information/power access needs to go hand in hand with democratic governance in Pakistan. With oppressive laws like the PECA Amendment 2022, the spirit of decentralization will be in the crosshairs of technological evolution. Technology being a global phenomenon is to be adapted well by a developing nation like Pakistan to chart a progressive path rather than creating two opposite poles between the ‘authority/establishment/elites’ and common masses.
“PML-N rejects amendments to PECA, says govt move aimed at ‘enslaving’ people,” Business Recorder, 22 February 2022
Rizwan Shehzad, “Cabinet gets tough on online defamation,” The Express Tribune, 21 February 2022
“Mohsin Baig case: Govt to file reference against judge for declaring FIA raid illegal,” Geo News, 18 February 2022
Eesha Arshad Khan, “The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016: An Analysis,” LUMS Law Journal, July 2018
“President passes ordinance to regulate social media, as Naseem warns against spreading ‘fake news’,” Pakistan Today, 20 February 2022