Concerns come true as state criminalises pre-election political dissent

Islamabad, May 25, 2017: It has been less than a year since the controversial Pakistan Electronic Crime Act (PECA) was passed by the Parliament. However, the concerns of misuse of this partially unconstitutional act are fast becoming true with criminalisation of political dissent and other forms of free speech (which should not be confused with 'dangerous speech' [1]).

In the last few days, the PECA, in combination with other censorship and surveillance enabling laws, has been used to undermine political expression in many ways. In one instance, a social media activist, Salar Khan, belonging to opposition party, PTI, was arrested by the FIA for criticising the government in power [2]. Many supporters of PECA, who happen to be in power can also no longer voice their protest against state policies. This was demonstrated with the arrest of a PML-N activist, Faisal Ranjha, when he was arrested from his workplace last week after being accused of posting 'inflammatory' content.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has also announced that at least 200 social media activists are being considered for questioning and detention over their criticism of the army. [3] While arrests of political activists are more likely to make it to the news, PECA’s misuse remains an arbitrary curb on freedom of expression for all citizens alike [4].

In a latest press conference, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali made a series of patronising statements associating social media clampdown as a service to the society, often citing blasphemy issues and disrespect towards military in the same context [5].

To date, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has not made public any rules, regulations, and definitions clarifying when and how the law can be implemented, leaving an open ground for interpretation and misuse of PECA by different law enforcing agencies.

While it is important to acknowledge the need for crackdown on dangerous speech (not to be confused with 'hate speech' [6]), gender based violence, fraud and other such crimes, a need which PECA reasonably fulfills, it is critical to highlight the unconstitutionality of arbitrary blanket censorship and surveillance that it allows.

For instance, Section 37 of the law borrows language directly from Article 19, and gives a higher authority the power to interpret this language, even though only higher courts have this power. The section also allows for arbitrary blocking of content undermining the rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

Furthermore, Sections 39 and 31 of PECA disregard the codification of the right to a fair trial by diluting existing procedures (Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013) for surveillance and denying people the right to protection of privileged information such as that between spouses, or lawyer and client.

In addition, some sections also enhance the ability of the PTA and FIA to violate fundamental rights due to lack of well-defined procedures and oversight mechanisms.

In light of the above, Bytes for All (B4A) would like to express deep concern over the misuse of PECA, as this would have a negative impact on the upcoming General Elections in 2018. B4A would also like to emphasize that such disregard for fundamental rights could prove detrimental for Pakistan's nascent democratic process. Therefore, B4A demands an end to the curbs on legitimate freedom of expression and that state should create an enabling environment for the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms, so democracy could be strengthened.

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[1] https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20140212-benesch-countering-dangerous-speec...

[2] https://www.samaa.tv/pakistan/2017/05/imran-says-govt-abusing-cyber-crim...

[3] https://www.samaa.tv/pakistan/2017/05/fia-to-question-200-social-media-a...

[4] https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2017/05/21/before-the-law-crackdown-on-...

[5] https://www.dawn.com/news/1334930 

[6] http://dangerousspeech.org/faq/?faq=574


About Bytes for All, Pakistan:

Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan is a human rights organization and a network of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals and practitioners. It experiments and organizes debate on the relevance of ICTs for sustainable development and strengthening social justice movements in the country. Its mission is “ICTs for development, democracy and social justice”. www.bytesforall.pk