ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Thursday sought a report from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on cases registered under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) till Friday (today).

IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah while hearing identical petitions filed against the controversial Peca ordinance and its section 20, which criminalises defamation, observed that prima facie the FIA invoked the controversial law to protect public officeholders.

Additional Attorney General Qasim Wadud informed the court that out of 95,000 complaints registered by the FIA cybercrime wing (CCW), about 22,000 had so far been disposed of.

He said public officeholders were open for criticism, however, their family members cannot be dragged into mudslinging.

Chief justice says in most of cases, FIA misused its authority against journalists

Justice Minallah asked him to give details of at least four or five cases where the FIA had exercised its power judiciously. In most of the cases, the FIA misused its authority against journalists.

He pointed out that there were various sections in Peca to counter cybercrime and exploitation of women and minors.

During the last hearing, the court was told by a law officer that sections 3 to 19 related to the information system, glorification of offences, cyber terrorism, hate speech, terrorism financing, electronic frauds while sections 21 and 22 dealt with uploading of objectionable contents and child pornography. Punishments for these offences are up to seven to 10 years’ jail term.

Justice Minallah asked the reason for which defamation was made a cognizable and non-bailable offence under section 20 of Peca. When defamation was listed in section 499 of Pakistan Penal Code, why the government had amended the cyber law to make defamation an offence with a punishment of five-year jail term, he wondered.

Justice Minallah drew the attention of the law officer toward the misuse of the Peca law, especially against journalists, and to silence dissenting voices. Giving two examples, he said in the case of journalist Bilal Ghouri, the FIA cybercrime wing invoked section 20 for reading the contents of an already published book.

In another instance, the FIA registered an FIR against media personality Mohsin Baig at 9am in Lahore on the complaint of the federal minister Murad Saeed who was in Islamabad that time, and raided Baig’s house at 9:30.

The court was told that in case of journalist Absar Alam, FIA had closed the inquiry but the case was not closed as yet.

Justice Minallah sought a complete report from the FIA and adjourned hearing till Friday (today).

The PTI government had promulgated the ordinance at a time when the legality of Peca’s section 20 was already under examination before the IHC.

The law has rendered irrelevant the recent jurisprudence of the superior courts that had evolved in cases registered against journalists and bloggers on the complaints of people other than the aggrieved persons. The IHC had made it clear that nobody, except the ‘aggrieved person’, could file a defamation complaint. But after the promulgation of the ordinance, any person or institution, not necessarily the aggrieved person, could file a defamation case.

While the IHC had declared that the complainant under section 20 would be a natural person, the ordinance has added more categories to it. It omitted the word natural in the heading of section 20, which was previously titled “offences against the dignity of natural person”.

Also, an amendment to section 2 of the amended act said the “person includes any company, association or body of persons whether incorporated or not, institutions, organisations, authority or any other body established by the government.”

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2022

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