Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Freedom Network (FN) are calling for a complete overhaul of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PEC) approved by the National Assembly standing committee on April 16.
The bill has been criticised for inadequately defining various terms and activities, and for provisions that allow censorship, criminalise a number of online activities, invade users’ privacy without any judicial control and restrict freedom of information and speech.
Although the bill was portrayed as a response to cyber-terrorism, the latest draft of the PEC falls short of protecting users against cyber-attacks and instead undermines civil liberties.
"This bill poses a real danger to democracy in Pakistan,” said Head Asia-Pacific desk RSF Benjamin Ismail.
“The law curtails journalists’ access to information from the ‘sources’ which are otherwise accessible even without the presence of right-to-information regime. Criminalizing the leaking of information by whistleblowers is tantamount to infringement of right-to-information and curbs free expression in Pakistan,” said Aurangzaib Khan a journalist at FN, Pakistan’s first media watchdog organisation.
“If adopted in its current form, the law would result in unprecedented self-censorship by all the media, especially those critical of the government, so we call for a complete revision that takes account of our recommendations,” the two organisations told the press.
Read more: ‘Flawed’ cybercrime bill approved
Section 34, one of the most controversial articles of the PEC, allows the government to block content on the grounds of “decency” and “morality”, threat to “public order” and “decency”, and danger to national security and inter-state relations.
Excerpt from Section 34
"...if it considers it 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."
According to Muhammad Aftab Alam, a media laws expert, Section 34 ─ which mentions the article 19 of the Constitution ─ is problematic: "Using certain parts of any constitutional provision in any other statutory law without its specific context is against the spirit of the Constitution. It is therefore unconstitutional to leave this to a statutory body like PTA or its authorised officer to decide about the fundamental right of citizens and block or remove any information from any website.
"Any government authority, including PTA, must not have any role in contents management by blocking a website or anything else. A broad-based representative civil society body with adequate authority/power should be mandated to do contents audit."
Another article of the bill criminalises ‘spoofing’ or online satire, which would under the PEC be punishable by three years in prison.
In addition, the use of encryption software and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) ─ that are a popular tool to circumvent governmental restrictions on content ─ may also be criminalised.
RSF and FN have recommended that any legislation regulating cyber-space must comply with international human rights standards ─ especially those regarding freedom of expression and information ─ because of Pakistan’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Article 19 (3) of the ICCPR requires restrictions on the above freedoms satisfy a three-part test in line with the interpretation of the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s General Comment number 34. The complete list of recommendations can be found here.
Pakistan is ranked 159 out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. The index measures freedom of information by assessing the degree of freedom allowed to journalists, media, and netizens (internet citizens) in 180 countries, and efforts made by authorities to respect and protect this freedom.