Vicious cycle

Published February 18, 2023
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

THE dual issue of the presence and use of draconian laws against political opponents continues, cementing the impression of weak rule of law, violation of due process and the vengeance of the establishment. Suppression continues to grow, with the recent issuance of arrest warrants for former federal finance minister Shaukat Tarin, based on leaked audio recordings of his conversation with his colleagues regarding negotiations with IMF officials.

This particular case highlights several major issues. First, there is no transparency regarding who recorded the conversation, which was clearly done illegally, violating both surveillance laws and the orders of the Supreme Court disallowing such wiretapping.

Second, the case includes sedition charges that stem from colonial-era laws and practices which do not belong in the current era. Sedition laws against criticism of the government are incompatible with democracy and fundamental constitutional rights.

Third, the charge includes Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, which deals with offences against the dignity of a natural person, in relation to their privacy. The reputation part of the section was struck down by the Islamabad High Court in April 2022. So, what natural person’s dignity and privacy has Shaukat Tarin violated in his phone call?

The chilling effect has to permeate throughout to silence any criticism of state policies.

Whereas the above is the case of a former government official, a young social media activist Sikander Zaman, who had a total of 184 followers on Twitter at the time of conviction, has recently been sent to jail for three years and told to pay a hefty fine for criticising the military and ‘state institutions’ on Twitter. His conviction is under Section 24-C of Peca related to cyberstalking, Section 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code related to defamation and Section 505 of the PPC related to statements conducing to public mischief.

The message seems to be clear: it does not matter how influential or young or prominent one is — the chilling effect has to permeate throughout to silence any criticism of state policies, no matter how out of line the state or its officials are.

At the same time, the current government has proposed an amendment to the PPC, criminalising criticism of the military and judiciary. There had been such chatter during the time of the PTI government as well. Reportedly, some members of the current cabinet opposed the proposal and now the prime minister has formed yet another committee to consider it. The intent seems to be obvious.

At the same time, Pakistan experienced the blocking of Wikipedia allegedly for blasphemous content. The ban was instated by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), on account of a petition at the Lahore High Court, and lifted only on the intervention of the prime minister after a hue and cry was raised by civil society, the IT sector, the media and academia.

However, the issue remains Section 37 of Peca, 2016, which deals with unlawful online content and the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content Rules, 2021, colloquially known as the social media rules, formed under Section 37 of the law.

The rules are currently under review by a parliamentary committee on the orders of the Islamabad High Court. But the PTA continues to abuse them to deprive the entire country of essential free knowledge platforms like Wikipedia, and has censored the entirety of TikTok, Bigo Live, PUBG and dating apps using these broad powers.

It is important that blasphemy not be weaponised again for blanket censorship that violates the basic right to information of Pakistan citizens. Such censorship is counterproductive and disproportionate. The Wikipedia ban should be a lesson for the state that the law must not allow any room for blanket bans, and there seems to be agreement in the current cabinet as well.

The result of this should be the amendment of Peca where Section 37 must be repealed, as it is merely a tool of censorship in the hands of the regulator. This is obvious from the type of requests the regulator has been sending to tech companies.

The amendment was also committed to by the Standing Committee on Human Rights in the National Assembly, which was chaired by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari previously. There are adequate protections present in Peca for citizens to avail when it comes to stalking, harassment, child pornography, and non-consensual intimate images. Section 37 merely strengthens political censorship.

The sedition clauses of the PPC also need to be repealed by parliament, as these are colonial laws that do not belong in a democracy. Criticism of state policy is the basic right of taxpayers and voters in a democracy — and the abuse of these laws to silence dissent and criticism, especially for political persecution, is well documented. What is appalling is that political parties that have been victimised under these laws continue to use them against opponents, not realising that they themselves will again be victimised under the same laws in the future.

Furthermore, instead of strengthening criminal defamation laws by making criticism of the military and judiciary a crime, the state needs to move towards decriminialising defamation. There already exists a civil defamation law; there is no need to put people in jail merely for speaking their minds regarding state institutions, which is an essential part of democracy.

If criticism of the judiciary and military was not permissible, we would still be under martial law, subjected to the judges who took oath under the Provisional Cons­ti­­tutional Order. All individuals across institutions are capable of mistakes and must be accountable to citizens rather than function with impunity.

It is time for politicians to sit together and draw some red lines under the major issues confronting Pakistan, including terrorism, political persecution, political involvement of the military and draconian laws that enable gross violations of fundamental rights.

If that is not done, the vicious cycle will continue; allowing little focus on issues that impact Pakistani citizens. Let us strengthen democracy.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2023

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