Editor’s Note: In this article, Younes argues that the text of the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill (PEC), a legislation aimed at preventing internet-related crimes, would further shrink space for free speech. If made into law, the state’s powers to “remove, block access” to the Internet would be sweeping. Younes argues that the state would use the law “to muzzle free speech” and any forms of political expression, such as “political satire, intellectual discourse and criticisms on state”. The criminalization of attacks on a “person’s dignity” and “distortion of a person’s face” suggest the legislation is aimed at “silencing dissent, criticisms of public figures and of the state”. It is the people’s legitimate criticisms, rather than any Internet crimes, that the state wants to prevent, and make into a criminal offence.
by Javeria Younes
The state of Pakistan is all set to unleash its iron fist by promulgating laws that curb free speech. This is a proactive step taken by the State to muzzle criticism and silence dissent. Freedom of speech and expression form the bedrock upon which the pillars of democracy stand; this freedom allows the public to air grievances and to voice dissent that can be made to reverberate in the corridors of power. A 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 the paradigm of freedom is about to change in Pakistan, thanks to the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, 2015. Rights groups have declaimed that the Prevention of Electronic Crime (PEC) Bill has provisions that will blatantly infringe fundamental rights. The Pakistani State, notorious for arbitrary laws, such as the Hudood (Sharia law), Blasphemy laws, and the Protection of Pakistan Act, has added another Orwellian law to the list of unjust legislations. PEC will be used 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 criminalized. Such a move may seriously jeopardize the right of freedom of speech enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan.
Provisions of the proposed law are arbitrary and unjust. They “shall apply to all citizens wherever they may be.” So, every citizen of Pakistan, even if residing or working abroad, will be covered under the ambit of the law. Tentacles have extended to Pakistanis 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 defense 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 façade.
Provisions of the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention on Cybercrime have not been followed. They had set up a detailed plan for legislation against cybercrime and guidelines so that the privacy of individuals is not jeopardized while apprehending criminals. In Pakistan, law enforcement agents have been given impunity to invade a person’s online privacy and the right to remain anonymous.
Political analysts deemed the draft law a tool to silence dissent and a public mocking of political figures. Section 16 of the draft bill has broadened the scope of offences against the dignity of a person; distorting a person’s face is deemed an offence which will curtail freedom of expression. This may outlaw leaking a video showing corrupt acts of politicians and law enforcement officials, defining such acts as being injurious to the reputation of these public officials. The Chairman of the 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. Therefore, the only way to block access was to block YouTube altogether. Crowd-sourced 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, like a picture, a video, or a caricature shared by a single user.
Section 31 is the most controversial part of the bill states:
31. Power to issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system: (1) The Authority or any officer authorized 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 et al.
(2) The Federal Government may prescribe rules for adoption of standards and procedures 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.
By inserting the above Section, the intent of the government was to legalize blocking powers, to exert control over the Internet and to curtail freedom of expression. Rights groups and legal experts are terming this section a tool of oppression. The state is now extending its tentacles to the Internet- the only medium available to the urban populace to openly share their views and access credible information not available via the mainstream media. By using ambiguous terms such as “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof, et al,” the State is providing a legal cover for institutional terror.
Strangling free speech on the Internet may backfire in a nation already sick of being muzzled and oppressed. As is evident from a perusal of the Act and 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 the weight of their own contradictory strangleholds. Thus, the government must ensure that its citizens are allowed freedom to air their thoughts without fear of repercussion.
Implicating persons or citizens whom the State or law enforcement officers want to keep quiet in frivolous cases is the sole purpose of this ambiguous law. Like any other criminal law enacted in Pakistan, the draft bill has drawn a distinction in the procedure of cognizable and non-cognizable offences. However, this is probably the first time that without defining what constitutes the offence, it has been made a cognizable and non-bail able offence. Given the ambiguity of the situation, arrest and investigation without warrant should not be permitted.
As an ambiguous law it has many loopholes, rendering it toothless against the culprit while implicating the innocent and unsuspecting. Given the inefficiency of the prosecution, it is unlikely that the case against a malicious user can ever be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. Here we have a law that has provided a mechanism for a law enforcement officer to arrest a person and seize the data on the pretext of national interest or the glory of Islam.
This draft bill is a continuation of severe laws used to oppress the masses into submission. A façade of a dummy democracy is being maintained by the State to hide its tyranny. Since the Nawaz Sharif government has come into power, the State appears to be turning against its own people. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are being given complete impunity to maintain law and order in the country. However, the irony of the situation is that it is worsening. It is time that the State rethinks and updates its public policies by proposing people-friendly laws that do not alienate and divide the Pakistani nation as a whole.