Irony died a thousand deaths yesterday when PML-N (indirectly) criticised its poster-child of legislations, Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, a law meant to control free expression online. In an extremely strange turn of events, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s official Twitter account tweeted:
مسلم لیگ (ن) کے سربراہ اور سابق وزیر اعظم نواز شریف کا سوشل میڈیا پر مسلم لیگ کے حامیوں کو ہراساں کرنے پر رد عمل pic.twitter.com/U1yXxQWDnS
— PML(N) (@pmln_org) October 21, 2017
“Former Prime Minister and the leader of PML-N said that to respect free expression, both online and offline, is a constitutional responsibility of the government. To oppress political dissent is condemnable. He expressed concerns over the harassment and disappearances of political workers of PML-N and termed it a blatant attack on freedom of expression. He said that everyone has a right to free, legit expression, the right to hold an opinion and disagree with others’ opinions. He said I truly believed in the right to free expression and demanded the Interior Ministry to look into the disappearances of PML-N political workers and ensure their safe return”.
The tweet was on the pretext of the arrests of PML-N’s political workers by the Federal Investigative Agency, FIA, under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act for ‘criticising state institutions’.
Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act is a law enacted last year to deal with cyber crimes. The drafting process for this legislation was led by the Federal Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom, MOITT, in conjunction with the Federal Ministry of Law and Justice. Anusha Rehman, the State Minister of Information Technology personally supervised the drafting and legislation process. While doing so, she voraciously defended sections of the law that civil society organisations and thematic experts deemed to be extremely dangerous for civil liberties.
Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (now Act), or PECB as commonly known, is arguably the only legislation in Pakistan that took nearly two years of consultations before its enactment as a law.
The reason for this delay, unfortunately, was not the government’s spirit of ‘multistakeholderism’ but the resistance of civil society organisations, individuals and thematic experts over this attempt to control online content, penalize free expression and set the bar much lower for legalized surveillance.
Earlier drafts of PECB were extremely predatory in nature; akin to a nightmare for civil liberties in Pakistan.
Among other things, they sought to empower ‘an individual officer’ of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, PTA, to monitor and censor online content if ‘deemed necessary’ based on ‘decency and morality’ and similar vague terms. No remedy was offered to get the block content restored.
Sections dealing with ‘dignity of a natural person’ were worded in a way that memes and caricaturization of a person, even for journalistic publications, would be an offense punishable with jail time and a hefty fine. Even minor offences such as spamming carried jail time and a serious fine.
There were numerous concerns for journalists and journalism as well. The ‘illegal’ access to public information systems, for instance, was made an offence without a distinction between crimes and actions in public interest. Whistleblowers and journalistic sources, already a persecuted lot in Pakistan, were in the danger of clear incrimination under this law.
Safe to say, if one of these first drafts of PECB were enacted as a law, the Internet in Pakistan as we know it today would have ceased to exist.
Civil-society organisations, Bolo Bhi, Digital Rights Foundation and Media Matters for Democracy among others, from the moment the very first drafts of PECB were released, started responding. Nearly after a year of deliberations, committee meetings, heated-discussion with government representatives, and petitioning, we were able to get only ‘some’ of our recommendations taken up. Many other extremely problematic sections remained.
During our engagements with the members of the Senate and parliamentary committees for Information and Technology, and the State Minister IT Anusha Rehman herself, we emphasized on the dangers of enacting a law which stands to criminlise political expression. During public and private meetings with the Minister, we highlighted the instances from history where the existing laws were used to initiate criminal proceedings against political and civic actors, including that directed against the leaders of PML-N itself. We highlighted the fact that barring or criminalising free expression to target political opponents might sound tempting, but from what the political history of Pakistan had taught us, it always came back to haunt the party that had enacted those policies.
Unfortunately, all our recommendations, written and verbal, the review petitions, and the alternate legal-drafts of the PECB that most of us submitted weren’t enough to convince the Federal Government and mostly, the IT Minister Anusha Rehman. On the contrary, the civil-society organistaions, including Media Matters for Democracy, were time and again labeled as ‘alarmists’ and ‘representatives of foreign hands’ by the IT Minister. PECA came into force after getting approval from the Senate and then from the National Assembly, only with 33 members present.
After the enactment of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (now Act), the IT Minister was quoted saying that “NGOs has weakened the cyber crimes law for vested interests”.
In another incidence, the IT Minister reportedly threatened a journalist with arrest and jail time under PECA for making a video.
The law as expected was used as a tool to target political dissent and free expression. According to Senator Farhat Ullah Babar, nearly a 1000 cases have been registered under it, mostly for dissent. Taha Siddiqi, a senior journalist, was ‘called’ by Federal Investigative Agency for interrogation (an act completely illegal) on his social media activity.
To everyone but the ruling party, it was obvious that the IT ministry was raising a snake in its own sleeve. It is ironic but not surprising, that the PML-N itself would come to feel the bite of it. The FIRs recently registered against a number of pro-PML-N twitter users frame charges under Section 9, 10 and 21 of PECA – time and again, the civil society had raised concerns that the framing of these sections would be used to silence political speech. The PML-N has been brought to the receiving end sooner than anyone could have predicted.
That said, all is not lost. With numbers of PML-N in the Parliament, amending PECA to incorporate protections from abuse should not be difficult at all. It is high time that the ministry went back to the drawing board, pick up the civil society concerns and suggestions and look at them from a now experienced eye. Ad hoc statements and speeches lamenting victimisation can only go so far. Everyone including the PML-N itself would benefit from a strong legal mechanism that actually focuses on dealing with cyber crimes rather than using it as an excuse to curb expression.
Asad Baig is an Islamabad-based journalist. He is the founder and the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan’s leading media development organisation. He’s also the CEO of the Media Lab, country’s first and only incubator and accelerator for digital media startups. He tweets at @asadbeyg.