Killing free speech

Published February 22, 2022

THE PTI government has triggered another controversy by promulgating a presidential ordinance that is a clear threat to the freedom of expression. On Sunday, Law Minister Farogh Nasim had announced in a press conference that the ordinance amended the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act that had originally been legislated by the PML-N government in 2016.

At that time too, media and civil society organisations had protested the contents of the law and warned that it would be used to curtail the space for free speech. The PTI government has now gone many steps ahead in making this draconian law even more restrictive; its scope has been broadened to include state institutions, like the military and judiciary, as aggrieved parties.

The latest amendments give the authorities the powers to arrest anyone accused of promoting or broadcasting fake news. The courts will have six months to decide whether or not the complaint is genuine but during this period the accused is liable to remain in incarceration unless given bail. This means that anyone can be arrested by the authorities on vague charges. This can lead to wild accusations resulting in random detentions.

Frustration at the government’s refusal to budge on the matter was visible yesterday when the country’s top media bodies walked out of a meeting with the information ministry.

Such laws have no place in a democratic society. However, with each passing day, it is becoming increasingly clear that the PTI government is making a mockery of democratic norms. The inexplicable postponement of the session of the National Assembly by the government now makes sense — it was done so that this draconian ordinance could be promulgated, bypassing parliament. It is ironic that the government is resorting to such high-handed tactics to silence its critics when the world is moving towards decriminalising defamation as an issue. The mal-intent of the government is thinly disguised.

Editorial: The govt is vulnerable on many fronts and knows it

The raid on the house of media personality Mohsin Baig and the manner of his arrest indicates that the government intends to use Peca to hound people in this manner. Armed with these latest amendments, it can run amok and unleash a wave of repression against those who do not validate its point of view. This casts a dark shadow on the state of constitutional democracy in Pakistan and makes the citizens vulnerable to greater persecution.

The amendment is a crude attempt by the PTI government to browbeat its opponents and it must not be allowed get away with it. The opposition, media, civil society and all segments of the citizenry must exercise their democratic rights to oppose this ordinance and ensure that it is rolled back. The judiciary too must play its role to ensure that the government is not allowed to trample on the constitutional rights of citizens for its narrow vested interests. Peca is a bad law. It should not be made worse.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2022

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