PML-N Information Secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb launched a scathing tirade against Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government over recent amendments made to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (Peca) through a presidential ordinance, saying that the government cannot hide its "fascist behaviour" behind these "draconian and black" amendments.
The government has been facing severe criticism from opposition parties and various media and journalists’ bodies after President Arif Alvi promulgated an ordinance on Sunday to amend the Peca to regulate social media.
"Imran Khan has made these draconian amendments to mentally enslave 220 million people of Pakistan," she remarked, adding that the amendments were in violation of national and international human rights laws, media laws, Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution, which pertained to freedom of expression, and every other law that reinforced the idea of freedom of expression.
Aurangzeb particularly highlighted two of the amendments, which she said were of significance.
Under one of the amendments, she added, criticising any department or institution working under the government or formed by it had been declared a non-bailable offence. Moreover, she continued, under another amendment, the Federal Investigation Agency had been authorised to detain any person on allegations of running or spreading fake news without the magistrate's permission and the penalty for the offence had been increased from three years to five years.
She recalled that such criminal cases were initially "allowed only for defamation and were aimed at facilitating women who faced harassment cases and had nowhere to go with their complaints". But through such an amendment, she said, the government was further depriving women of their rights.
"You are playing a dangerous game with the people and media of Pakistan."
Aurangzeb also pointed out that while the amendments stipulated the punishment for running or spreading fake news, it did not define the term fake news.
Under these amendments, she said, "simply deeming that a person has spread fake news will suffice to sentence them to five years in jail. And this also applies to anyone who retweets [any content deemed fake news]".
The PML-N leader claimed the government had taken this step because PM Imran was unable to take to criticism.
"And if the enforcement of this law is important, Imran Khan should be the first one to be put behind bars. And he should be imprisoned for 10 years," she said, referring to suits filed against the premier on allegations of defaming PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif.
Aurangzeb added that members of PM Imran's cabinet, "who use fake news and sources to defame people daily" should also be imprisoned under this law.
"We demand that Imran Khan, his cabinet members and rented representatives should be put behind bars under these amendments."
Continuing her tirade against the premier, she said he had used laws to jail his political opponents, silenced media and attacked and tortured journalists, adding that a recent example of this was the cases against media personality Mohsin Baig.
According to Aurangzeb, the recent amendments to the cybercrime law were made to "cover" the saga involving Baig.
She further said, "At the same time, I also want to ask Imran Khan sahib, do you have the means to put 220m people behind bars?"
Because, she said, the people would be criticising the premier and his government, given their dismal performance.
"You are criticised in every neighbourhood and city because people don't have food on their table today. They don't have money to buy medicines ... You have destroyed the economy," she said. "You want to put the entire nation behind bars?"
She said instead of improving its performance, the government was taking measures to punish journalists and analysts participating in talk shows who informed the nation about its performance.
Aurangzeb warned that laws being framed by the government would eventually work against it.
The ordinance through which amendments have been made to the Peca is called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022.
Under it, 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 cognisance 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 said.