Muzzling speech

Updated 08 Aug 2016


EVEN a quick read of the late colonial-era file on legendary South Asian writer Manto’s trial is testament enough to his blunt, and brutally honest spirit — the kind that saw him through several court trials and trips to the mental asylum. During the trial for his story Bu (odour) one of the prosecution witnesses was appalled that Manto had used ‘bosom’ to describe a woman’s breasts. “What else did you expect me to call them?” he retorted.

Never mind that it touched on social constructs we still struggle to question today, never mind that all of his stories told truths that societies do not want to face; instead, his critics remained transfixed on his ‘obscenity’ and supposed perversion, as the subtleties were lost on them. But this is how censorship works; it always has.

In Manto’s Pakistan, controversies are carefully constructed to throttle speech, there’s limited space for anything but a carefully crafted state sanctioned narrative. Take for instance the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill which would allow the state to take down any content deemed immoral/obscene or block access to any website in the interest of the glory of Islam or the defence of the state. If passed, the bill would give legal powers to the state to crack down on content, but it doesn’t stop there: several aspects of the law criminalise online activity. This isn’t new.

When the first draft of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Bill was introduced by retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime in 2006, a diverse group of civil society members, business owners, doctors and entrepreneurs pushed back, making sure that the ordinance lapsed before it was enacted into law.

PECB’s effect on society will be chilling.

One of its fiercest critics is now IT minister, Anusha Rehman, who has since become its biggest proponent. However, the latest draft also contains loopholes that will be used to silence dissent. To look at just some of its many troubling aspects, criminalising unauthorised access, copying or transmission of data with “dishonest intention” in effect criminalises the work of whistleblowers and journalists. In its current form, the proposed law lacks clarity on whether even reporters will be protected, let alone whistleblowers.

Then there is the issue of hate speech. The draft law contains vague language and fails to define hate speech or its qualifications. Instead, it stipulates a jail term for up to seven years for anyone that “disseminates” information that is “likely to advance interfaith, sectarian or ethnic hatred”. Ironically, the clause meant to prevent sectarian hatred can also be used to target minorities. There’s nothing in the text to qualify what kind of material is “likely to advance sectarian hatred”.

For example, the government evidently believes that Shia Muslims highlighting the rampant targeted killings of members of their community reinforce the sectarian divide. To this effect, the website which simply keeps a tab on the number of Shias killed in terrorist attacks, was blocked. Beyghairat Brigade, a Lahore-based rock band whose song Dhinak Dhinak faced a partial ban for satirising the power of the military, could now face jail-time of up to 14 years for cyberterrorism.

The law also criminalises spamming with a prison term of up to three months and allows internet service providers to retain user data for up to one year, legitimising mass surveillance of users. Since Pakistan has an existing law, The Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013, that legitimises wiretapping and surveillance and renders it admissible evidence in court, citizens will now face the prospect of jail-time for an online activity they indulged in a year ago.

Confronted with the prospect of a bill that would criminalise the work many of us do, a group of civil society and business associations requested numerous amendments. These have largely been ignored only to be replaced by harsher and more draconian provisions that will ultimately have a chilling effect in a society already struggling with regressive laws that limit people’s desire to speak honestly in public. Although the bill has passed through multiple government committees, there have been more bureaucratic hurdles than actual debate on an important law that could change the face of communication and journalism in Pakistan.

As the bill now lies in the assembly after being amended by yet another Senate committee, the only space in Pakistan that showed some semblance of openness is at risk of being heavily censored, decrying the lack of critical thinking would now be futile. With its so called cyber-crime bill, Pakistan is ushering in an era of the surveillance holy trinity. They’re listening, they’re recording and they’re coming for us.

Sana Saleem is co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights advocacy group.

Nighat Dad is the founder of Digital Rights Foundation.

Twitter: @SanaSaleem

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2016