ISLAMABAD: Lawmakers should reject or revise four draft bills “likely to undermine press freedom”, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Friday, urging the legislators to consult journalists and other stakeholders in a transparent review process before putting the bills to a vote.

The CPJ, a press freedom watchdog group based in New York, said in a statement that one of the bills would empower the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to oversee the dissemination of “authentic news” and prohibit media organisations from spreading “disinformation”, which could lead to censorship.

The bill — seeking to amend the ordinance governing the broadcast regulator — was passed by the National Assembly on Wednesday and moved to the Senate.

The CPJ said the federal cabinet had approved two other draft bills and was soon expected to introduce them in parliament. Another bill, which would amend the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), is pending cabinet approval.

“Local journalists and rights groups fear that these bills would entrench measures to undermine data security and free expression online before Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government is dissolved later this month,” the watchdog said.

It said the bills would provide sweeping powers to the incoming caretaker government, “which Sharif’s ruling coalition and the military are both seeking to control”.

The CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, Beh Lih Yi, said: “We are alarmed by the Pakistan government’s apparent attempts to bulldoze four draft bills undermining press freedom through parliament ahead of the political transition scheduled for later this month.”

Ms Beh added: “There needs to be a substantive debate on the bills and their far-reaching impacts. Pakistan’s lawmakers must ensure ample time to review the draft bills in consultation with civil society and journalists before coming to a vote.”

The CPJ said that on July 26, the federal cabinet approved two of the draft bills, the E-Safety Bill 2023 and the Personal Data Protection Bill 2023, paving the way for a parliamentary vote.

“The E-Safety Bill would establish a new regulatory body … (that) would be empowered to take notice of and impose penalties for alleged cybercrime violations, including publishing ‘false’ news, which the Pakistan Digital Editors Alliance, a local journalists’ association, warns could be used to stifle free speech,” it said.

Besides, the Personal Data Protection Bill would mandate data localisation within Pakistan for companies, including social media platforms, it said.

Meanwhile, the managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, Jeff Paine, wrote to the prime minister on Friday, expressing concerns about the potential tabling of the Personal Data Protection Bill, E-Safety Bill, the upcoming amendments to Peca and the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules.

The coalition has a great deal of clout as some of the world’s largest tech companies, e.g. Google, Apple, Meta, Amazon, Spotify and Yahoo, are part of the AIC.

Published in Dawn, Aug 5th, 2023

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