Indefensible stance

Published March 3, 2022

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan’s defence of the amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, is untenable. Truth be told, it is based on the kind of disinformation that the government itself claims justifies the need for such draconian amendments to the law. Mr Khan, in his address to the nation on Monday, said that his government had promulgated the ordinance to tackle the “filth of child pornography and harassment of women” on social media. “More than 94,000 cases regarding women’s harassment, fake news and pictures are pending with the FIA and of those, only 38 cases have been disposed of so far,” he observed. In that case, the government should have pulled up the FIA for its inaction, which civil society activists have brought on the record multiple times to no avail. After all, a few days before the ordinance was passed, the law-enforcement agency wasted no time in arresting media personality Mohsin Baig following a complaint filed against him under Peca by a federal minister, so why does it drag its feet on processing other cases?

The intention behind amending Peca has nothing to do with the protection of any segment of the populace: it is purely self-interest and self-preservation. In fact, the PTI government’s own functionaries and the party’s official social media accounts initiate and enable trolling of the most vile sort against independent-minded women journalists. Resistance to this unconstitutional ordinance is snowballing, with several journalist organisations and bar councils having filed petitions against it. While hearing one of these petitions, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court rightly pointed out that improvement to the already existing defamation law was all that was needed to ensure swift disposal of cases. Criminalising defamation is not the answer, at least in a country not ruled by a tinpot dictator.

However, the PTI government has long used the red herring of ‘fake news’ to discredit responsible journalism that did not gel with its narrative. By bringing in legislation which so comprehensively seeks to gag the media and silence critical voices, its hollow claims about respecting the right to freedom of speech stand exposed — as do whatever remains of its democratic credentials. Consider the timing of the ordinance: it was passed on a Sunday, Feb 20, only two days after the government in an unprecedented move cancelled a scheduled session of the National Assembly. In a functioning democracy, a bill would have been introduced and debated by elected members of parliament before being voted on. Certainly, as the prime minister said in his speech, it was the PML-N government that enacted Peca — something that should forever remain a stain on that party’s record. But for Mr Khan to say that his own government was “only amending it”, is being economical with the truth. The amendments have made a black law far worse.

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2022

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