UNCONFIRMED reports this week of cases being registered against dozens of journalists under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, sparked panic and elicited condemnations from both members of the media and rights groups.

Fortunately, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari later clarified on Twitter that the reports were untrue, and that the Federal Investigation Agency had not registered cases against journalists and activists, but that a private citizen had complained about 12 members of the media.

While the clarification brought some relief, the episode underscores the climate of fear in which journalists operate. It also reminds us of the spate of cases that have been filed against journalists in recent weeks.

In early September, an FIR was registered against journalist Asad Toor for posting “negative propaganda” against institutions and the army on his social media account. In the same period, a sedition case was registered against journalist and former Pemra chairman Absar Alam. Prior to this, journalist Bilal Farooqi of The Express Tribune was detained by police for allegedly “objectionable” material on social media which “defamed” the army.

A gift of the PML-N government in 2016, the draconian Peca has become for the authorities a convenient tool with which to silence criticism. In the guise of protecting the people, Peca has enabled the state to protect itself by blocking criticism and stripping citizens of their rights. It is the most sinister cybercrime legislation in the country as it goes beyond just computer-related crimes and gives authorities the licence to criminalise, restrict and prosecute free speech. Not only does it restrict freedom of expression online, it is now increasingly being used to attempt to jail journalists.

Section 37 of the Act gives sweeping powers to the PTA to block or remove online content, whereas Section 20 introduces criminal defamation through an ambiguous section with a three-year jail term and a hefty fine — both strong indicators of the legal framework for the erosion of free speech. As a result of this law and the way it is used, the media is experiencing an unprecedented wave of both imposed restrictions and self-censorship.

There is an urgent need for lawmakers to address this and take action — the first step of which should be the passing of the human rights ministry’s comprehensive bill on the protection of journalists; the bill has been lying with the law ministry for months. Condemnation of individual cases of intimidation is not enough.

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2020

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