President promulgates ordinance to regulate social media as minister warns against indulging in 'fake news'

Published February 20, 2022
President Arif Alvi speaks during an interview on DawnNews. — Screengrab
President Arif Alvi speaks during an interview on DawnNews. — Screengrab

President Dr Arif Alvi on Sunday promulgated an ordinance to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (Peca) as federal Law Minister Barrister Farogh warned that no one would be exempt from indulging in "fake news".

The development comes a day after the federal cabinet gave approval for a presidential ordinance to amend the Peca, 2016. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the approval for the ordinance was sought through circulation.

The ordinance, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, has been called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022 and "shall come into fore at once".

An amendment has been made in Section 20 of Peca, increasing the jail term for defaming any person or institution from three years to five years.

Further, the complainant has been defined as the aggrieved person, his authorised representative, his guardian in case he is a minor or "a member of the public in respect of a public figure or a holder of public office". Online public defamation has also been made a cognisable and a non-bailable offence.

The definition of a "person" has been expanded to include any company, association or body of persons whether incorporated or not, institution, organisation, authority or any other body established by the government under any law or otherwise.

The ordinance also stipulated the insertion of a new section in the act under which a timeline was given for the court to wrap up the case. "The trail shall be concluded expeditiously, but preferably not later than six months of taking cognizance of the case."

The ordinance also stated that the court would have to submit a monthly progress report of any pending trial to the high court concerned and give reasons for the inability of the court to expeditiously conclude the trial.

"In case the high court finds the reasons given by the court under sub-section (2) to be plausible ... it may accept the explanation of the court, and prescribe fresh timelines for the conclusion of a trial."

On the other hand, if the high court acknowledged "difficulties, hindrances, and obstacles for concluding a trial expeditiously, which are removable by the federal or provincial government or any of its officers [...] it shall call upon the federal or provincial government or any of its officers to remove such obstacles."

It stated that where the Ministry of Law and Justice secretary of the provincial secretaries of the same ministry were of the opinion that the delay in the disposal of the trial was attributable to a presiding officer or any of its functionaries, "it shall furnish such information to the high court concerned, proposing suitable action."

It added that the high court could order disciplinary action against the presiding officer or any of the court's functionaries if they were found to be responsible for the delay in the disposal of the trial.

"The chief justice of every high court shall also nominate a judge along with other officers from the court for acting under this section," it concluded.

Law minister warns against 'fake news'

Earlier today, federal Law Minister Barrister Farogh Naseem called for rooting out the propagation of "fake news" and said that no one will be exempt from indulging in the menace under the amended laws.

Talking to the media in Karachi, Naseem said spreading fake news would be treated as a cognisable offence after the amendments to the act took effect. "It will also be a non-bailable offence with up to six months imprisonment."

In his press conference, Naseem insisted that the amended law would help curb fake news. "Whatever happened in the past is gone, now we are moving in the right direction."

Law Minister Barrister Farogh Naseem addresses a press conference in Karachi on Sunday. — DawnNewsTV
Law Minister Barrister Farogh Naseem addresses a press conference in Karachi on Sunday. — DawnNewsTV

The minister explained that the law was primarily for a public figure or a public office holder, while a complaint about disinformation or false news could be filed by the public at large.

Giving an example, he said: "Suppose, fake news is spread about a veteran film actor named Nadeem. It's not necessary that Nadeem himself should turn up to lodge a complaint. Instead, anyone can approach a relevant authority with a complaint and the case has to be wrapped up within six months under the law."

The minister quoted a few recent instances wherein some dignitaries were targeted with false information. He said it was regrettable that filthy language was used against former chief justice Gulzar Ahmed a few weeks ago.

"Similarly, wrong information about the first lady made rounds that she had a bust-up [with her husband] leading her to leave her home... how can one spread such incorrect stories?" the minister wondered.

Asked whether the PTI was introducing the new law as it could feel the end of its tenure approaching and to prevent rivals from targeting the part, Naseem said that he did not believe that the government's days were numbered.

"In case we are in the opposition, then this law will obviously not be favourable for us. Hence, the idea that the government will soon go home is not correct," he said.

The minister was also asked whether he felt "disappointed" that his ministry was not ranked among the top when the prime minister awarded certificates to several ministries for their performances earlier this month.

Naseem responded in the negative, adding that the MQM-Pakistan was not competing with any ministry "at all".

Separately, PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz declared that the laws that the government was passing in an attempt to "silence the media and the opposition", would eventually be used against "Imran and company".

"Don't say we didn't warn you," she said.

Contention over new regulations

The Peca was passed by the National Assembly in 2016 amid the opposition's protest.

The PML-N, which was in the government at the time, had used its majority to bulldoze the controversial bill. The opposition, meanwhile, criticised the legislation for giving the executive what it called sweeping powers that could be misused against anyone and further curb freedom of expression in the country.

The legislation stated that parody or satire-based websites and social media accounts can be proceeded against on ‘spoofing’, which makes it an offence to run a website or send information with a “counterfeit source”. It also authorised Federal Investigation Agency officers to unlock any computer, mobile phone or other device that may be required for the purpose of investigating a crime or offence, and said that defamation would be treated as a punishable offence.

In November 2020, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government framed social media laws under Peca, drawing criticism from digital rights activists, the Internet Service Providers of Pakistan and the Asia Internet Coalition, who had termed the laws draconian.

Tech companies had also threatened to discontinue their services in Pakistan if the rules were not amended, saying the regulations would make it difficult for them to continue their operations.

The rules were also challenged in the Islamabad High Court (IHC). During one of the hearings on the petition, the attorney general had assured the IHC that the government was ready to review the rules.

In March 2021, Prime Minister Imran Khan had constituted an inter-ministerial committee to review the controversial social media rules.

The committee had prepared the rules by August and they were passed by the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases on September 23.

The federal cabinet had approved the amendments to digital media rules on September 29 and the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication had notified them on November 14.

The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules, 2021, allowed the telecom regulator in the country to block any website or platform on the directives of court and federal government or under any law.

In a statement issued at the time, IT and Telecom Minister Aminul Haque had said under the rules, social media companies would have to abide by Pakistani laws and the rights of social media users.

He had said there would be a ban on the live streaming of extremist, terrorist, hateful, obscene and violent content, and "social media companies will be liable to remove content against Pakistan's integrity and defence."

As per the rules, the propagation of "immoral and obscene content" will also be a punishable offence, Haque had said.

"No negative content concerning any individual will be uploaded," Haque had said, adding that uploading material about someone's private life would also be banned.

Other things banned under the revised rules include "content against Pakistan's cultural and moral trends" as well as content that could "destroy" the morals and harm the mental and physical development of children.

The minister had said the rules would apply to all social media outlets including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Google. He had added that after the issuance of the notification, the social media companies would be required to set up their offices in Pakistan "as soon as possible".

Social media companies were asked to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) within three months of the law coming into force and to appoint an authorised compliance officer and grievance officer based in Pakistan within the same time frame. These officers have to address complaints within seven working days.

The rules also direct social media companies to establish an office in Pakistan, preferably located in Islamabad, upon PTA's directions "as and when feasible". Previously, the rules required the companies to set up their offices within nine months.

Internet companies had criticised the amended version as well, noting that the most problematic provisions remained unchanged in the new draft that they said had in fact "regressed" in comparison with previous versions.

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