By Sabena Siddiqi.
The controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill was passed by the National Assembly and adopted unanimously by the Senate recently, it has been implemented immediately on all Pakistanis here as well as those living temporarily abroad. It has been termed a draconian law by many and it is said to transgress an individual’s human rights. Henceforth, it may not be possible to discuss the government and other state institutions on social media.
On many counts, it carries severe punishment such as imprisonment and heavy fines for offences that are not even clearly outlined. In the past decade, the usage of social media for voicing ones opinions increased remarkably, it had become the norm to pen down literally anything on Facebook, Twitter etc. The average user will have to be more pro-active and exercise self-censorship, writing unfavourably against state institutions is a crime as well as many minor things which come under the vast ambit of the cyber laws. The Pakistani masses are mostly uneducated; most people will remain unaware about the law and become easy prey. The Twitter -ati will not be able to start trends criticizing the government, politicians, public figures or security agencies, ‘defaming’ or harming the Prime Ministers reputation carries the punishment of three years in prison.
The wide-ranging definition of what is deemed as an offence gives the authorities broad-spectrum powers to prosecute and censor, these ambiguous definitions can be misused and misinterpreted very easily. Our government could co-operate with foreign governments or agencies for further investigation, it could also forward them any related information. There can be seven years imprisonment and a Rs. 10 million fine for interfering with critical infrastructure information system or data with mal-intentions, here the term ‘infrastructure’ has a wide scope and can cover a lot of unspecified content. Glorifying terrorism, celebrating or praising a terrorist attack also carries the penalty of seven years imprisonment and a Rs.10 million fine. There is a clause on hate speech which is fair enough, the crime of cyber-terrorism is a nonbailable offence this clause was essential but the parameters of “national security’ are not clearly specified. Six months imprisonment and Rs.50 thousand fine for importing, producing or supplying a device used in an offence, three years imprisonment for accessing, transmitting and misusing another person’s identity details without authorization. Spamming and spoofing also needs to be defined clearly and adeptly dealt with, telecom companies often provide cell numbers of their subscribers to companies for advertising, unauthorized issuance of SIM cards is also mentioned. Blasphemy and pornography have not been covered as offences by the Bill, though the PTA has been empowered to remove any material that is against decency and morality. The PTA has absolute implementation powers, it can block and destroy any unlawful content and online material without requiring a court order as stated in Section 34 of the bill, the point to ponder is who can ably define what is lawful or not.
These offences are to be tried in a special court set up for this purpose, social freedom and chatter of the general public has been put on a leash. The Cyber Law Bill’s confusing punishments and ill-defined crimes curb human rights and freedom of expression, now it is a risk to pick up ones phone and comment. It seems like social media had started rankling the government as it was effectively influencing public opinion, those at the helm of things do not want to be held accountable for their actions and have resorted to muzzling the fundamental rights of Pakistani public. There are nearly 30 million internet users in Pakistan, tele-density has increased massively as almost 70 percent of the population has mobile phones, these laws are going to affect a large chunk of the population. Democracy in Pakistan has now begun to carry the trappings of a dictatorship.
The Bill affects Facebook and Twitter users in three major ways, they cannot name any individual to convey negative news about them, it would be defamation and misuse of information. The picture of an individual cannot be used without their prior permission, this part of the Bill can be easily manipulated, in group pictures anyone of them can raise an objection. The good old days when we posted social pics are gone, the person posting the pic needs to have prior assent of all in it which may not be practically possible. The picture of an individual cannot be photo-shopped even in a comic way, the part about superimposing with sexually explicit images is fair but the flaw is that this clause can be stretched far enough to cover even a cartoon. No more memes are possible under the new laws, sending a text message to someone without their consent can also become an offence and comes under cyber-stalking, it is as if the average citizen’s privacy has been completely invaded.
Article 19 of the Pakistan Constitution says:
Freedom of speech – Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law 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, 1 [commission of] or incitement to an offence.
Article 19 mentions ‘reasonable restrictions imposed by law’, it surely did not mean fascist restrictions over the right of freedom of speech. The Cyber Crime Bill is poorly drafted, its vaguely worded clauses are open to misinterpretation and misuse in the future, it needs to be tailored according to the sensitivities of modern technical communication. It reflects badly on the powers that be, and their desire to censor and control information will negatively impact society.
Writer hails from Karachi and is a Lawyer, Journalist writing on Geopolitics, Law-related topics and Pakistan-centric issues.