THE courts have already given an indication, it seems, as to the legal merits of the reprehensible amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, made by the PTI government via an ordinance last week. While hearing a petition filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists against the move, the Islamabad High Court yesterday restrained the FIA from making arrests under Peca’s Section 20, which gives the law-enforcement agency a wider ambit following the amendment. Among effecting other changes that have rendered a draconian law even more so, the ordinance makes online defamation a non-bailable, cognisable offence and increases the jail term to a maximum of five years. It is the kind of legislation that only the most autocratic regimes still have on their statute books. The claim by government spokespersons that the amendment is needed to counter ‘fake news’ is in itself disinformation at its most egregious. A paranoid dispensation is leaving no stone unturned to muzzle any critical voice against it. However, the path it has taken is likely to boomerang, as inevitably does all legislation that goes against constitutionally protected rights.
Some saner voices in the government are urging it to take a different direction. Among them, in fact, is none other than Federal Minister for IT & Telecommunication Syed Amin Ul Haque, which indicates that a few select individuals were behind the ill-thought-out move. In a letter to the prime minister, he has suggested that the government withdraw or review the ordinance. “…It is through the media that the government is able to project its image to the public. By pushing forward with these amendments without consulting the relevant stakeholders, in this case media practitioners, the government will stoke anger and resentment within the journalistic community. … It is only through dialogue and deliberation that media practitioners and the government can establish procedures to curtail fake news… .” Even the country’s top law official, Attorney General for Pakistan Khalid Javed Khan, while speaking to a news channel, said that the ordinance “will be draconian if it comes into force as it is”, adding that it will be regulated before implementation. That does not inspire confidence, and it should not. The very existence of such a law is a travesty, aside from making a mockery of all that Imran Khan and his party colleagues had to say about it when it was first enacted by the PML-N government.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2022