ISLAMABAD: Digital rights advocates, politicians and lawyers have called for the reform of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016, according to a new research report published by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA).

The report, “Pakistan’s Peca Problem: Curbing Speech, Not Crime”, reviews the impact of the cybercrime law on journalists and human rights defenders five years after the law was passed.

According to the study, Peca remains a source of intimidation in connection with the online expression and digital journalism of media professionals and information practitioners.

The research notes that many cases initiated against journalists under Peca were cancelled by courts apparently due to lack of evidence, indicating these cases might have been pressure tactics to silence journalists. The role of law enforcement authorities added to the atmosphere of intimidation through vaguely worded notices issued to journalists.

The report’s findings are based on a desk review of around 20 instances of cases and inquiries conducted under Peca against journalists and human rights defenders from 2016 to 2021. The study also relied on structured interviews with human rights defenders, lawyers and politicians to determine their views on Peca and its implementation in the context of freedom of expression.

According to the research, human rights defenders said the cybercrime law was negatively affecting freedom of expression in Pakistan by pushing internet users towards self-censorship, criminalizing free speech, curbing online dissent, limiting pluralism in public discourse and restricting people’s access to information.

Most politicians surveyed for the report indicated that they felt the prosecution of online speech had increased since Peca’s enactment. The law was being used as an instrument of censorship with journalists especially being the target of the law’s misuse.

Lawyers polled for the research appreciated the role of the higher judiciary in connection with Peca. They said the higher judiciary was receptive to arguments in favour of digital rights. But still the lawyers almost unanimously said Peca should either be repealed or radically amended in light of constitutional freedoms.

Mohammad Aftab Alam, the executive director of IRADA, said the report intended to provide a reality check and inspire an intervention. “The five-year anniversary of Peca offers a unique vantage point to review the law, its enforcement and the way it has affected democratic values and fundamental freedoms in the country,” he said.

“The study captures the increasing support among civil society that the law must be reviewed and reformed before it causes further damage to online freedom of expression and digital rights.”

The study recommends that a multi-stakeholder dialogue should be conducted to review the adverse impact and legal problems of Peca.

It suggests that online defamation should be decriminalised to mitigate the misuse of the law and the investigative procedures under it should be improved in line with the directions of the Islamabad High Court to ensure transparency and due process.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2022

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