The federal cabinet on Tuesday formed a committee to review a bill that aims to amend the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) where up to five-year imprisonment will be awarded to whoever ridicules the Pakistan Army and judiciary through any medium.

In a handout, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said a cabinet committee had been formed to carefully review the Criminal Laws Amendment Bill, 2023 forwarded by the interior ministry. It further said that the body would submit its report at the next meeting of the federal cabinet.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, Economic Affairs Minister Sardar Ayaz Sadiq as well as representatives from the coalition parties have been included in the committee, the PMO handout said.

Meanwhile, Dawn.com has learnt that a threadbare discussion was held on the bill during today’s federal cabinet meeting, wherein a majority of the members opposed the amendment.

A source from the PMO said PPP leaders Sherry Rehman, Naveed Qamar and Hina Rabbani Khar were among those who strongly opposed the proposed bill.

From the PML-N only Khawaja Saad Rafique — who is also the railways minister — opposed the proposed bill outright.

After listening to the concerns of the cabinet, the prime minister recommended that a committee be formed to review the proposed bill. He also said that members from allied parties should also be included in a bid to resolve their concerns, the source said.

Titled Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023, the bill suggests a new section 500A after section 500 in PPC 1860. The new section is titled ‘Intentional ridiculing or scandalising of the state institutions etc.’

It says that whoever makes, publishes, circulates any statement or disseminates information, through any medium, with an intention to ridicule or scandalise the judiciary, the armed forces or any of their member will be guilty of an offence punishable with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with a fine which may extend to Rs1 million or with both.

Similarly, in the Schedule II of the PPC, a new section titled 500A has been added to section 500, which says that the offender will be arrested without a warrant and the offence will be non-bailable and non-compoundable which can only be challenged in a sessions court.

The cabinet summary states that recently the country has witnessed a spate of scandalous, derogatory and vicious attacks on certain institutions of the state, including the judiciary and armed forces.

It adds that it is well-known that a deliberate cyber campaign has been launched by certain wings for self-serving motives with the objective of inciting and nurturing hatred against important state institutions and their officials.

It also states that such attacks are focused on undermining the integrity, stability and independence of the country’s state institutions. The summary says that judicial and army officials do not have the opportunity to step forward and negate scandalous, derogatory remarks while appearing in the media.

The document suggests that given the long tested legal principle noted in Section 196 of the CrPC, prior approval of the federal government before taking cognisance of the case or registration of a first information report (FIR) against any person has been made mandatory to avoid misuse of the mooted PPC section.

Speaking to Dawn.com, digital rights activist Fareiha Aziz said that it appeared as if the PML-N had learnt no lessons from the persecution it faced during the previous PTI government.

“While they were critical of the PTI for introducing legislation to control social media and the ordinance for amending Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (Peca) […] similar proposals have been afloat since the Pakistan Democratic movement came into power.”

She further said that first information reports (FIRs), illegal raids and arrests had become the norm when it came to social media posts that were perceived as “anti-state” or “anti-army”.

“Be it Peca, various sections of the PPC or even the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) — all laws at the state’s disposal are used,” she remarked.

She went on to say that a PTI MNA had initially moved a bill to amend Section 500 of Peca but the party later introduced an ordinance which broadened Section 20, which deals with offences against dignity of a person.

“Following the formation of the PDM government, a cabinet summary was prepared to empower the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to take cognisance of Section 505 of Peca. And now we see another move to expand criminal defamation when in fact we need to repeal it and remove it [out] from our laws,” she said.

Previous attempts at similar legislation

A similar draft bill was approved by a National Assembly (NA) standing committee in April 2021 which proposed up to two years imprisonment and a fine for those who “intentionally ridicule the armed forces”. The draft had drawn the ire of politicians from across the divide as well as the legal fraternity.

The criticism of the bill was not only from opposition parties but also from the then-federal ministers Fawad Chaudhry and Dr Shireen Mazari.

“Absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalise criticism, respect is earned, cannot be imposed on people. I strongly feel instead of new such laws contempt of court laws should be repealed,” Chaudhry had said in a tweet.

The bill, titled Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2020, was introduced by PTI legislator Amjid Ali Khan and was approved by the NA committee amid strong objections from the PPP’s Agha Rafiullah and PML-N’s Marriyum Aurangzeb. However, it did not sail through the two houses for undeclared reasons.

Likewise, the government in November last year had approved an amendment to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Act 1974, which empowered the agency to act against anyone who intends to spread “rumours and false information against state institutions” on social media.

After the reports of the amendment, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah had told reporters in parliament that if the bill was against the freedom of expression then “we won’t pass it and won’t be with it.”

No such legislation has taken place since then.

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