Islamabad, 22 February 2022: Parliamentary Leader of the PPP in the Senate, Senator Sherry spoke on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), by saying “The promulgation of PECA amendment bill is a huge blow to democracy as the incumbent government has formalised another way to silence criticism while encroaching on people’s right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Press, both of which are enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution in Article 19. This draconian law is a nationwide gag order to curtail any criticism of the government and is a page directly from the handbook of tactics of a dictatorial and fascist government. All key stakeholders, from journalists, digital rights activists to human rights organisations have categorically condemned this bill.”
She continued, “The government claims that the bill is an attempt to curb fake news, however, the bill fails to define “fake news” or even draw a distinction between opinions and misinformation. Using vague terminology opens a dangerous avenue for exploitation of the law, which can be used to threaten, silence and even arrest individuals reporting on the news or simply stating their opinion. The scope of the PECA has been widened beyond justification. Under section 20 of the ordinance, any party can file an appeal against any statement that is perceived to be ‘false’ or harmful to their reputation. Additionally, section 20 has been altered so that non-bailable warrants are issued against the ‘transgressor’ rather than the previously bailable ones. According to the new amendment, any company or institution set up by a government is now encapsulated within the bounds of PECA and any criticism against these bodies can lead to 3-5 years of punishment.
The Senator said, “FIR’s can be made by any citizen that may perceive statements to be offensive to any public organisation or official. Paving way for vigilante justice, rampant intimidation tactics and cultivating constant paranoia. This will generate a fear of open dialogue, which is severely needed in this country where intolerance is on a worrying rise.”
Speaking on Journalism in Pakistan, she said, “Journalists are harassed, picked up, tortured and taken off air in unprecedented numbers, making Pakistan a hostile country for dissent, but now, journalism is under threat more than ever. Journalists may be harmed and punished just over allegations of fake news reporting, without evidence or court hearings. Journalists’ safety has been a long-standing issue that many across the political and ideological spectrum have expressed grave concern over, which has largely gone unheeded by the government. In its 2021 report, Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan 145th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, now with the PECA law in place, a downward slide in these rankings is imminent. In Naya Pakistan, Journalists are guilty until proven innocent.”
“This government has issued more than 70 ordinances in the last three and a half years and bulldozed laws through without parliamentary consensus and consultations from key stakeholders. Now, the PECA ordinance has been promulgated without a single debate in Parliament on the bill. The government has no qualms over the unconstitutional nature of this bill, it was promogulated by ordinance because PTI is aware that appropriate channels for legislation would have flagged it immediately and all good-faith parliamentarians would have voted against it. Unfortunately, upholding democracy has never been a part of this government’s manifesto; tactics to deflect blame and criticism is the central pillar of PTI’s policies regardless of their consequences.”
She concluded by saying, “We condemn the misuse of all such laws to silence dissent. This moves to add more teeth to the cybercrime law has little to do with regulating fake news, but more about shutting down legitimate criticism of the government. If this was a genuine initiative to curb fake news, then stakeholders and journalist bodies would have been taken on board. Instead, this government runs troll farms on taxpayer money and has single handily been responsible for lowering the tone of public discourse in Pakistan. PTI has created a Republic of fear with its draconian laws and suppression of democratic rights and freedom of expression.”