Cyber-gag law under fire in court, on the streets

Published March 1, 2022
Journalists protest against the controversial amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016 in Islamabad on Monday. — Screengrab courtesy Murtaza Solangi Twitter
Journalists protest against the controversial amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016 in Islamabad on Monday. — Screengrab courtesy Murtaza Solangi Twitter

QUETTA/LAHORE: Even though the government is refusing to budge on the issue, the Balochistan High Court (BHC) on Monday admitted for hearing a petition filed by the Balochistan Union of Journalists (BUJ) and Balochistan Bar Council, challenging the controversial presidential ordinance amending the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016.

Meanwhile, the PML-N has decided to table a resolution in a joint session of parliament it is requisitioning, seeking that the ordinance be struck down.

The ordinance has already been challenged in the Islamabad and Lahore high courts.

Last week, while dismissing PML-N and PPP petitions against the Peca amendment ordinance, the Islamabad High Court had suggested political parties utilise the forum of parliament to settle their issues, pointing out that either house of parliament could reject the ordinance through a resolution.

PML-N to requisition joint session to repeal Peca amendment; journalists observe ‘black day’

On Monday, a BHC bench comprising Chief Justice Naeem Akhtar Afghan and Justice Rozi Khan Barrech admitted the petition wherein the BUJ and the Balochistan bar pleaded that in the presence of democratic institutions concerned, imposing such an Act through an ordinance was unjustified and against the Constitution.

After an initial hearing, the bench issued a notice to the attorney general of Pakistan for submitting a reply within two weeks.

Advocate Rahib Buledi, the Balochistan Bar Council inter-provincial chairman, appeared before the court on behalf of the petitioner. He pleaded that in the presence of democratic institutions, including an elected parliament, the ordinance is unconstitutional and illegal. He requested it be declared null and void.

The Balochistan advocate general and former Supreme Court Bar Association president, Amanullah Kanrani, also appeared in court and offered full support to the plea against the Peca amendment ordinance.

Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) president Shahzada Zulfiqar, BUJ president Irfan Saeed, general secretary Manzoor Ahmed and a large number of BUJ members were present on the occasion.

Mr Buledi later told the media: “It is malicious on the part of the government to cruelly amend Peca through a presidential ordinance.”

Mr Zulfiqar and Mr Saeed said not only journalists, but all political parties, the human rights commission and members of civil society had rejected the ordinance, which is illegal, unconstitutional and against the freedom of expression and of the press.

“We will take the Peca amendment ordinance to its logical conclusion as the PFUJ and the entire journalist community, political parties, lawyers, [Human Rights Commission of Pakistan] and civil society rejected it,” they said, adding that through this black law the government wanted to gag journalists and society. “We will continue our struggle against it and not allow the government to fulfil its nefarious designs against the freedom of expression.”

PML-N resolution

Meanwhile, National Assembly Opposition Leader Shehbaz Sharif said his party would table a resolution in a joint session of parliament to demand the controversial amendment ordinance be repealed. “We are going to requisition a joint parliament session seeking repeal of Peca amendment ordinance under Rule 145,” the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) president said here on Monday.

He said he had decided to seek requisitioning of a joint parliamentary session to repeal the “black law against the media” and instructed his party leaders to take practical steps in this regard.

Assuring the media’s Joint Action Committee (JAC) that called on him here on Monday, Mr Shehbaz claimed the PML-N would repeal the “dark, authoritarian and anti-media laws that violate constitutional freedoms of freedom of expression and access to information” once it came to power again.

The delegation included leaders of Pakistan Broadcasters Association, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors and All Pakistan Newspapers Society.

Shehbaz extended his support to the committee’s decision to challenge the Peca ordinance in court. He called the government move a manifestation of authoritarian, fascist and undemocratic thinking and pledged to challenge all black laws on every legal forum and block their way.

The opposition leader maintained that the media was a mirror to the rulers to correct their “disfigurements”. “The PTI rulers are under the misconception that they can jail, punish, imprison, and impose fines through these black laws and [gag] the people. This has not happened in the past and cannot happen now,” he stressed.

Shehbaz further remarked that if the government did not have malicious intentions, the draft amendments would have been debated in parliament and the “backdoor of ordinance” not used. “The PTI government wants to shut the eyes, tongues and ears of the media to cover up its worst and historic failures on every front. The PML-N will not allow this to happen,” he vowed and paid tribute to the struggle of the JAC against the attacks on media freedom and black laws and assured them of his party’s full support to achieve this goal.

In a televised address to the nation on Monday, Prime Minister Imran Khan defended the amendments to Peca, dismissing the criticism that it was being used to curb media freedom. “The Peca law was made in 2016. We are only amending to curb the filth on social media.”

‘Black day’

Also on Monday, journalists’ representative bodies across the country observed ‘black day’ on the call of the PFUJ against the presidential ordinance amending Peca. In various cities, protests were held outside the respective press clubs.

Addressing outside the Quetta Press Club, PFUJ president Zulfiqar, BUJ’s Irfan Saeed and the press club president Abdul Khaliq Rind said if the ordinance was not withdrawn, the journalist unions would adopt a strict line of action.

In Islamabad, a procession commencing from the National Press Club comprising journalists, trade union activists, lawyers, politicians and civil society members pushed aside the police barricades on their way to Parliament House.

PFUJ secretary general Nasir Zaidi said: “The journalist body has never and will never accept such ordinances that curb the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression.”

MNA Mohsin Dawar foresaw that such laws will be used against the incumbent rulers in the future. “We will raise our voice against the ordinance in parliament,” he said. Activists Farzana Bari and Tahira Abdullah said no one has ever been able to suppress free voice in Pakistan and announced to continue the struggle.

Kalbe Ali in Islamabad also contributed to this report.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2022



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