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Move for a broad gag law

Updated April 23, 2015


In view of the widespread denunciation of the new Prevention of Electronic Crimes (PEC) Bill, by both national and international human rights organisations as well as experts among the stakeholders, the only reasonable option for the government is to withdraw the ill-conceived proposal and return to the drafting board.

Efforts to check cybercrime have been going on for more than a decade. While stable democracies are expected only to prevent abuse of information technology, imperfect regimes are devising means to control and censor electronically transmitted information. The text of the bill as approved by the relevant standing committee of the National Assembly merits rejection as it throws Pakistan into the second category.

The history of bills drafted on the subject reveals the federal authority’s ill-concealed resolve to revive Gen Musharraf’s notorious Pakistan Electronic Crime Ordinance and it can squarely be accused of bad faith.

Read: Human Rights Watch, others declare cyber crime bill ‘undemocratic’

The authors of cybercrime bill have tried to mislead the public by using Article 19 to cover up their gag plan.

It has been alleged that a draft PEC bill was prepared in 2014 with the help of an eminent authority on the subject but ill-equipped officials have turned it into a highly flawed text. The revised bill violates the basic principle of lawmaking that requires all statutes to be precisely worded so that broad interpretations do not cause anarchy.

Civil society critics of the bill have rightly taken exception to the wide definition of ‘service provider’ which covers not only telcos and ISPs but also internet cafes. Indeed, the term may include rights organisations that put out information on the abuse of people’s rights. In the last but one version of the bill, a service provider was required to retain its data for 90 days but now the period has been extended to one year.

Apart from the burden this provision imposes on IT users, the bill legitimises official seizure of data. While a new amendment has made the demand for data needed for a criminal trial subject to court orders, the new Section 32 gives any authorised officer sweeping powers to gain access to data, obtain its copies or seize it altogether.

Also read: NA committee approves 'controversial' cyber-crime bill

In their desire to make censorship as pervasive as possible the authors of the bill have criminalised, along with the sending of fraudulent and illegal messages, a broad category of ‘unsolicited’ information. Notwithstanding the annoyance caused by junk mail, it is ridiculous to criminalise transmission of unsolicited information that may be to the good of the community, such as warnings of natural disasters, increase in pollution, traffic bottlenecks, etc.

The provision that has caused the greatest alarm to civil society is Section 34 of the revised bill (Section 31 till sometime ago) through which the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) will acquire the “power to manage intelligence and issue directions for removal or blocking of access of any intelligence through any information system”.

In simple words, the government wants to have the power to block Pakistani IT users’ access to the World Wide Web, if it exposes official wrongdoing or carries international censure of the state’s policy. It could also mean the power to block websites of human rights organisations or publishers of online editions of newspapers that carry information on issues about which the authorities are hypersensitive, such as blasphemy cases, disappearances, extra-legal killings, et al.

The power to block information is sought to be given to the PTA or any officer authorised by it, if it considers such action necessary “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, or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act”.

The authors of the bill have tried to mislead the public by using Article 19 of the Constitution to cover up their gag plan. All constitutions of Pakistan (1956, 1962, and 1973) have made the right to freedom of expression subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by the law in the interests cited here. Obviously, reasonable restrictions have to be defined in law and a broadly worded constitutional provision cannot be invoked in cases of breach.

Article 19 does not define the offence of contempt of court or an offence against the integrity of the state; these offences are dealt with in the Contempt of Court Act and the Penal Code, respectively. The PTA cannot be invested with the authority to decide what constitutes contempt of court or what is contrary to the interest of the state’s integrity or security; that power vests with the judiciary alone.

While contempt of court and threats to the state’s security have been defined in laws, the expression ‘glory of Islam’ has not been defined in any legal code. The PEC bill confers on the PTA the extraordinary power to decide what glory of Islam demands or prohibits.

There was a time when glory of Islam was interpreted narrowly as respect for clearly defined religious injunctions. Today, a minority is trying to uphold child marriage, denial of education to girls, women’s exclusion from public life and discriminatory laws under the cover of belief. The PEC bill is apparently a device to legitimise a massive regression in religious thought.

A matter of serious concern is the possibility that offences triable under the normal penal laws could also be tried under the PEC law. This is totally unnecessary and unjustified and could undermine the judicial system.

Pakistani lawmakers do not have to invent the wheel. They should look at cybercrime laws made in the rest of the world and the challenges in courts these laws have faced. Pakistan’s highest interests will not be served by allowing state functionaries to monopolise entire cyberspace and deprive the people of their basic rights. Prevention of information abuse cannot mean protection of immature authorities’ love of hush-hush governance.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2015

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