Now that the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill has been passed by the Senate, Dawn spoke to Haroon Baloch, a journalist and researcher at Bytes for All, on what happens next, and what – if anything – remains unaddressed by the bill. Bytes for All is one of several NGOs that have been involved in consultations on the PECB, and previously took the government to court on the Youtube ban.

Q: The Senate on Friday passed the PECB – what happens now?

A: The Senate worked on some amendments and then cleared them. Now this bill, with all the amendments, will go back to the National Assembly which will have to OK the bill after which it will be in effect.

If the National Assembly does not agree with certain things that Senate introduced to the bill, it may lapse there. If this happens, the bill will go to the joint session where the government will have the majority to get it passed in any shape it wants.

We do not have access to the new amendments that opposition members worked on on [Friday] morning. But we have heard unofficially that they have introduced a couple of safeguards on certain sections, like section 34, where they have added that if the [Pakistan Telecommunication Authority] censors certain content on the grounds of the restrictions given in Article 19, the court can be consulted within 30 days on the decision of the authority. The safeguards are welcomed, but we are not satisfied.

The Senate [Standing Committee on IT] has also introduced a clause on hate speech which was not previously part of the bill. The way this clause has been drafted is very vague and its scope is very wide. It will be difficult to determine what the qualification of hate speech is under this clause. It is important to properly define hate speech when discussing sensitive issues, particularly in the context of freedom of expression and global standards.

Q: What kind of implementation and oversight mechanisms does the PECB outline?

A: Mechanisms for implementation are missing from this bill. The authority has to frame rules after this becomes law. It is a vague thing; there is no mechanism for the working of the authority, so they have to chalk out these rules. It may take them two, three or four years to do this. Again, this is a very grey area.

So when this bill was passed by the National Assembly, oversight mechanisms were missing. In Article 19, which is replicated in section 34, the authority to interpret the Constitution lies with the high courts, but previously all these powers were given to the PTA, which was to decide on what content they would like to go on websites or blogs.

But this interpretation – when it comes to the restrictions in Article 19, such as the glory of Islam or friendly relations of state – is always the authority of the courts.

Now, we have learned from sources that the proposed amendments have introduced parliamentary and judicial oversight, but this is not confirmed.

Q: How aware are average Internet users of what the PECB means for them?

A: I don’t think people are well aware of what this bill means for them. But again, it is difficult to answer without the amendments in front of me. [The bill could be] a nightmare for the average users, but they are ignorant of this.

Q: What remains unaddressed in the bill?

A: All aspects have been covered as far as electronic crimes are concerned and the bill goes beyond the ambit of electronic crimes since they have introduced clauses on cyberterrorism, which is not the subject of the bill. Cyberterrorism is not a crime, it is terrorism. Hate speech is also discussed under the cyberterrorism clause.

We have concerns about [journalist and whistleblower] protection and to my knowledge, they did not touched on the subject of uncovering sources and threatening the work of whistleblowers on Friday morning.

Sections 3,4,5,6,7 and 8 directly affect the security of whistleblowers and sources and the work of journalists, media, human rights defenders, academia and researchers, who get information via sources, will be difficult.

That there are no safeguards or protection for journalists or whistleblowers is very concerning and the committee and opposition members have not considered our recommendations on this matter.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2016