ISLAMABAD: The federal government has approved an amendment to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) act, empowering it to act against anyone who intends to spread “rumours and false information against state institutions” on social media, it emerged on Tuesday.
Last week, cabinet members approved a summary on circulation from the Ministry of Interior about the amendments in the schedule of the FIA Act, 1974.
The summary was approved through circulation as a formal meeting of the cabinet couldn’t take place due to the prime minister’s busy schedule over the past two weeks.
According to the summary, available with Dawn.com, the “FIA has intimated that presently, social media is inundated with false information and rumours against state institutions and organisations with intent to cause or incite or which is likely to cause or incite any officer, soldier, sailor or airman in army, navy, or air force of Pakistan to mutiny, offence or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such.”
Cabinet approves summary to include Section 505 of PPC in agency’s schedule
It further adds that these rumours and false information were also being disseminated with the intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm in the public or in any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or against the public tranquillity.
“FIA has added that these are likely to incite any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community,” it said.
The agency told the government that the subject offence could be tried under Section 505 (statement conducing to public mischief) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which was currently not included in the schedule of the FIA Act and sought the state’s approval to include the section in its scheduled offences.
Sub-section one of PPC Section 505 states that anyone found committing its relevant offence shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years, along with a fine.
An official of the FIA told Dawn.com on condition of anonymity that previously they would need cabinet approval and there were other bureaucratic requirements but with the inclusion of this section, they would now be able to take action without further delay. “Similarly other wings of FIA, including the counterterrorism wing, would also be able to take action against any such material which falls under their ambit, including registering a case,” he said.
Commenting on the approval, Farieha Aziz, co-founder of digital rights organisation Bolo Bhi, said: “Since 2016, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) has become the weapon of choice for the state to use against dissidents.
“However, as courts — in particular, the Islamabad High Court [IHC] — began to check the executive’s overreach and hold them to procedures under the law, we have seen the use of PPC provisions.”
She added that first investigation reports including section 505 have become common over the last few years but fall under the jurisdiction of the police.
“To circumvent procedures that require permissions from court and warrants, or to have to rely on the police, it appears the FIA’s hand is being further empowered so the crackdown can continue more swiftly,” Ms Aziz said.
It is worth noting that the IHC had earlier struck down an ordinance, promulgated by the previous PTI government, making amendments to the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act.
In April, IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah issued a four-page order explaining how Section 20 of the law, which criminalises defamation, flew in the face of freedom of expression, a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2022