• Draft law circulated among cabinet members for approval
• Proposal for allowing lawmakers to run election campaign

ISLAMABAD: In another move to regulate social media despite criticism from stakeholders and digital rights activists, the government is all set to promulgate an ordinance declaring defamation of people and institutions on social media a cognisable offence, with jail term being increased from two to five years.

The drafts of the proposed legislations, including an amendment to the Elections Act 2017 allowing members of the parliament to take part in election campaigns, had already been circulated among the federal cabinet members for approval, said Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry while talking to Dawn on Saturday.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government had recently rolled back its plan to establish one authority to regulate all media, including social media, after facing strong resistance from almost all the stakeholders, including journalist bodies and civil society organisations.

Since assuming power in 2018, the PTI government has made several attempts to regulate online content through legislations such as the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules-2020 and the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules-2020. However, digital rights groups and journalist bodies such as the Repor­ters Without Borders (RSF) opposed the move, asserting that such measures should not become ‘a disguised form of censorship’, and demanded the government rescind the social media rules.

Talking to Dawn, the information minister said in the proposed law related to online public defamation, it had been made mandatory for courts to decide cases within six months. Besides, he said, it was currently a bailable offence but after the proposed legislation it would become a non-bailable offence.

The minister said it was also decided to increase the jail term for defaming any person or institution on social media from two years to five years through an amendment to Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016.

He disclosed that the drafts of the proposed legislations had already been circulated among the cabinet members for approval. He also said the two laws, including the one related to parliament member’s right to run election campaign, would be enforced through promulgation of presidential ordinances.

The government earlier on Friday cancelled the already summoned session of the National Assembly at the eleventh hour. Later, the sources said the session had been put off as the government wanted to bring some legislations through presidential ordinances. The PTI government, which has promulgated over 70 ordinances since August 2018, has been facing strong criticism for heavily relying on ordinances for legislation.

Minister Chaudhry, however, claimed that the NA session had been shelved due to the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Russia.

He termed the PM’s visit to Russia a ‘game-changer’ and said it was after 23 years that Russia had invited any Pakistani leader to Moscow. He said the visit would boost Pakistan’s ties with Russia.

He said there was no leader of Mr Khan’s stature in the country and opposition leaders including Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Maryam Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif were “dwarfs” in front of him.

Hitting out at the opposition, the minister asked Ms Nawaz to return the money looted by the Sharif family if she was a well-wisher of the country. Pakistan had borrowed US$1 billion from the International Monetary Fund, equivalent to price of the London apartment owned by Hassan Nawaz, he said.

He ridiculed the opposition’s plan for bringing a no-confidence motion against the prime minister and declared that those who could not succeed in the Senate, despite having a majority in the upper house of parliament, were not in the position to defeat the government in the National Assembly.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2022

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