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Amendment to Pakistan’s Cybercrime Law Sparks Outrage From Free Speech Defenders

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Amendment to Pakistan’s Cybercrime Law Sparks Outrage From Free Speech Defenders

Pakistan’s prime minister said the changes, which include harsher punishments and less rights for the accused, are necessary to fight “fake news.”

Amendment to Pakistan’s Cybercrime Law Sparks Outrage From Free Speech Defenders
Credit: Depositphotos

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has defended recent amendments to the country’s controversial cybercrime laws, saying they were necessary to root out “fake news.”

In his address to the nation on Monday, in which he also announced a reduction in fuel and electricity prices for the inflation-hit citizens, Khan said the amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, first introduced by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was made to tackle filth such as child pornography and online harassment of women.

Under the new law, which has been termed “draconian” and “undemocratic” by media bodies and human rights organizations, a person accused of defaming another person or institution, such as the army or judiciary, has now been denied the right to bail and could be jailed for up to five years instead of three.

A trial is to be concluded within six months under the supervision of a High Court, and in some cases any citizen – and not necessarily the aggrieved party – can become a complainant. The offense has also become cognizable, which means police will be able to make an arrest without a warrant.

Khan said the law, amended late last month through a presidential decree, was not against press freedom. “A leader who is not corrupt and does not break laws will never be afraid of a free press,” he said, adding that thousands of cybercrime cases were pending before authorities but to no avail.

“Even the prime minister of a country is not being spared let alone a common man,” Khan said, referring to social media discussion about alleged differences between him and his wife.

He said he filed a defamation case against the correspondent (referring to veteran journalist Najam Sethi) who made the claims, adding “it has been three years but the prime minister has yet to get justice.”

“If this can happen with a prime minister, think about others,” Khan said.

Accusing journalists of taking bribes, Khan said “mafias” were blackmailing people in the name of press freedom. He said three leading newspapers alleged that the selection of the prime minister in Pakistan-administered Kashmir was done through some sort of black magic or sorcery. “If the same had happened in the West, they would have been slapped with a huge fine for the libel.”

Disinformation is a problem on Pakistan’s social space, but the ruling party itself is accused of supporting troll armies who run smear campaigns against opponents and critical journalists, especially women.

In addition, government ministers, including the prime minster himself, have often made unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against opponents, and lawsuits by those who were slandered have remained pending for years.

On his television show later in the night, Sethi – the journalist targeted by Khan – responded and said he filed a case against Khan seven years ago for his accusation that Sethi rigged the 2013 general election for the PML-N during his tenure as the interim chief minister of Pakistan’s largest province Punjab, but has yet to get justice. Sethi said first his case should be decided, and then comes the prime minister’s turn.

Political parties, journalist unions, as well as rights activists have criticized the new law, and are opposing it in courts as well as on streets.

Farieha Aziz, cofounder of Bolobhi, a digital rights advocacy group, said the law not only violates constitutional protections under Article 19 (freedom of speech) and Article 19 A (right to information), but also goes against Article 89 (which deals with the “power of [the] president to promulgate ordinances”).

“It is a feeble defense from the government. Fake news is [Donald] Trump’s phrase. The proper terms are misinformation and disinformation, and these are not tackled by excessive criminalization,” she told The Diplomat.

Aziz said the amendment is crafted to go after any critic, without any hindrance and no checks by courts.

Rooting out disinformation, Aziz said, requires an understanding of the difference between misinformation and disinformation, providing citizens with the awareness and tools to identify and check, and reliance on technology.

She said disinformation is an evolving problem with evolving solutions, and opposed “excessive legislation” to counter it. “This is a global issue with no quick fix … We need to look at debates and best practices elsewhere and ensure we act proportionately.”

Khan praised independent press when in opposition, but his policies since taking charge have proved to be a bane for the journalism industry. Thousands of media workers have lost their jobs due to a cut in official advertising and owners passing the buck on workers. Meanwhile, journalists continue to be harassed, prosecuted, censored, and even physically attacked. Last year, the government sought to introduce the Pakistan Media Development Authority, a super-regulator to oversee print, electronic and digital media, but the move was unanimously rejected by all stakeholders.