NA passes bill to amend Official Secrets Act

Published August 7, 2023
Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar speaks during the National Assembly session on Monday. — PID photo
Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar speaks during the National Assembly session on Monday. — PID photo
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addresses the session of the National Assembly on Monday. — DawnNewsTV
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addresses the session of the National Assembly on Monday. — DawnNewsTV

The National Assembly on Monday passed the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill, 2023 after making some alterations to the original draft — just like the Senate had a day earlier.

The most significant alteration made in the now adopted bill was the removal of a clause that would have granted intelligence agencies the power to arrest suspects or conduct searches without warrants. This amendment was made by a Senate committee during the bill’s vetting process.

Another change was made to clause 5 of the bill, which earlier stated: “[A] person may be presumed to have been in communication with enemy or a foreign agent if he has, either within or without Pakistan visited the address of a foreign agent or consorted or associated with enemy or a foreign agent…”

Following the amendments, the word “knowingly” has been added to this clause which will now read “…if he has either within or without Pakistan ‘knowingly’ visited the address…”

Last week, the bill encountered strong opposition from both sides in the Senate and was consequently referred to the relevant standing committee of the house for further deliberation.

The committee had suggested amendments to the bill and sent it back to the upper house for approval, which took place on Sunday.

It is worth mentioning that the outgoing government had originally got the bill passed in the National Assembly (NA) on August 1, but due to vociferous opposition from certain lawmakers, the bill was sent to the relevant committee of Senate for vetting.

In today’s NA session, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar presented the amended bill again and read the amendments clause by clause, leading to its unanimous approval.

The bill now seeks the president’s assent to become a law.

The bill

The original amendments in the secrets act have broadened the definitions of military installations and bring digital and modern means of communication into the law’s ambit. According to experts, this could bring vloggers and bloggers within the ambit of the law as well.

The definition of a “document” has been widened as it now includes “any written, unwritten, electronic, digital, or any other tangible or intangible instrument” related to the military’s procurements and capabilities.

Likewise, the definition of “enemy” introduced in the proposed law states: “Any person who is directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally working for or engaged with a foreign power, foreign agent, non-state actor, organisation, entity, association or group guilty of a particular act… prejudicial to the safety and interest of Pakistan.”

Experts term this section “against the principles of natural justice” as it treats unintentional contact at par with planned espionage.

The proposed law is going to empower the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) to raid and arrest a citizen over the suspected breach of official secrets, while simply disclosing the name of a secret agent will also be considered an offence.

Through an amendment in Section 11, the lower house gave vast powers to officials of intelligence agencies as they would be allowed to “at any time, enter and search any person or place, without warrant, and if necessary, by use of force, and seize any document, sketch, or like nature, or anything which is or can be evidence of an offence committed or suspecting of been committed, under this act”.

An amendment in Section 6 proposes a penalty on a citizen with a prison term of three years for disclosing the “identity of the members of the intelligence agencies or the informants or sources”.

Moreover, clauses related to prohibited areas have also been amended and it would be an offence if “someone access, intrude, approach or attack any military installation, office, camp office or part of building”.

At present, the offence is restricted to such movement during the time of war only, however, the proposed legislation has expanded this to peacetime as well.

Section 3 is being renamed from “penalties for spying” to “offences”.

With slight amendments to the existing offences, it has also added the photography through drone cameras of prohibited areas as a crime.

The amendments in Section 4 also term a visit to the address of a foreign agent within or outside Pakistan as an offence.

The proposed law empowers the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the officials of intelligence agencies to investigate suspects for violation of the Official Secrets Act.

It says: “An investigating officer under this act shall be an officer of the Federal Investigation Agency not below the rank of BPS-17 or equivalent. The said officer shall be designated by the Director General [of] FIA for the purpose of investigation. If the Director General [of] FIA deems necessary, he may constitute a joint investigation team, convene by such officer and consisting [of] such other officers of intelligence agencies as he may appoint.”

The JIT is supposed to complete the investigation in 30 working days and the challan would be submitted to the special court through public prosecutor.

The law also deals with the admissibility of the evidence and states: “All material collected during the course of inquiry or investigation, including electronic devices, data, information, documents, or such other related material, which facilitates the commission of any offence under this act, shall be admissible.”

Bilawal wants charter of democracy amended

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called for the amendment of the charter of democracy, advocating the involvement of “other institutions” in addition to political stakeholders to collectively determine the path forward for governance.

“We are moving towards elections, but political parties should practice politics in a way through which we can move the situation towards reconciliation,” the minister told the National Assembly session.

“We need to, for the last time, set the rules of the game on how politics will be conducted and how institutions will collaborate.”

“PPP is of the opinion that we should amend the charter of democracy, involving not only political parties in the house but also other institutions in this dialogue. It should encompass discussions on whether Wapda will be managed by a chief justice or someone else,” he stated, alluding to the respective domains of institutions and emphasising the significance of adhering to them.

He further added, “We used to emphasise that all institutions should work within their own ambit, but we haven’t been successful in achieving this.”

Bilawal called the arrest of PTI chief Imran Khan “Makafaat-e-Amal” (karma), stating that he might be released at a later time, and the same political dynamics would continue, expressing his regret that the real problems faced by the people remained unresolved.

The foreign minister said the ruling coalition wanted to “expose the selected government” but always tried not to do anything which affected the democracy or “gave benefit to any third force”.

Bilawal said he had recently made a statement in which he had urged his father Asif Ali Zardari, and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif to take such decisions that would his and Maryam Nawaz’s future politics.

He rued, however, that “the way we are moving forward, it seems our elders have chosen to maintain politics exactly as it has been for the past 30 years.”

Bilawal pointed out that the country’s youth was disillusioned with the current state of politics and lacking trust in the current crop of politicians.

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