The controversial presidential ordinance amending the cybercrime law in the country has drawn severe criticism from all quarters. The ordinance gives a licence to authorities to indulge in outright abuse of power. Now the government has sought time from the Islamabad High Court (IHC) to check the power of arrests by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) given in the amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA). IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah is hearing the petitions that journalists’ representative bodies, the PML-N and the PPP have filed. There can hardly be two opinions about the fact that this is a draconian law that needs a serious rethink from the government. The PTI’s ordinance-happy government also needs to remember that there is a functioning parliament in the country. But it has become a common practice of the PTI-led government to bypass normal parliamentary procedures and avoid any debates and discussions on such controversial laws. The government has also been using joint sittings of parliament to pass laws which it fails to move through the Senate with simple majority.
The IHC has barred the government from making any arrests using the amended PECA, pending its fate being finally decided. Defamation laws across the world are becoming a thing of the past and there are fairly stringent conditions to prove any such allegations. In Pakistan too, there are already defamation laws in existence and there is no need to further impose any other ordinance that directly infringes upon people’s right to free speech. If the amendments do become law, it will adversely affect the media scene in the country at all levels – from electronic and print to social media. We have already seen how agencies such as the FIA and NAB have scant regard for standard operating procedures when it comes to conducting inquiries. Making arbitrary arrests has become a common practice of the FIA and they tend to use their powers indiscriminately. By further criminalising defamation, the government has essentially violated the fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan.
The constitution of Pakistan guarantees people’s fundamental rights under articles 19 and 19-A, and any attempt to infringe upon those rights would be challenged by a free media and free citizens in any democratic society. Already living and working in a suffocating environment due to seen and unseen censors, journalists, social media users and regular citizens are in danger of having what little room they have to express themselves also being taken away from them. Rather than curtailing freedom of expression, the government should be introducing more safeguards against the abuse of powers by agencies such as the FIA. Discouraging free speech is in nobody’s favour and leads to oppressive measures by the authorities. While hate speech and incitement to violence should always be checked by law, PECA in its current form and with the amendment is not the answer to this challenge. How can questions regarding governance or public policy or national policy be criminalised? As Pakistanis, we should all enjoy the freedom to responsibly speak our minds and criticise those in power. The only way to hold the state accountable for its actions is if the public feels unafraid to give its honest views. Social media has given every citizen a voice and any attempt by the government to silence that voice should be challenged.
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