How far is the state willing to go to police the internet in Pakistan?

Published: July 29, 2016
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The “so called” reasonable restrictions imposed on freedom of expression in Article 19, through section, will provide authority of interpretation to PTA, which means the role of reviewing the law is being transferred from the Supreme Court to the regulator. Once it becomes law, it becomes easy for PTA to direct internet service providers to block or censor content from any website, blogs or social media. PHOTO: COURTINGTHELAW.COM

It is unfortunate that every time activists engage the government in a discussion regarding the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB), with the aim of protecting civil liberties in cyberspace, the government in turn makes the law more complex and open to multiple interpretations.

In recent days, an extensive round of deliberation was carried out with the senate’s standing committee and sub-committee on information technology. This time, digital rights organisations somehow managed to push legislators through, with the help of a few sane voices, in the senate for removing and/or improving the sections contravening the essence of democracy vis-à-vis civil liberties.

Pakistan has ratified several global human rights standards including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which means it is binding for the state of Pakistan to promote and protect fundamental rights through effective law and policy making.

Working with the senate’s sub-committee on IT issues provided the civil society a ray of hope since this was the first time, in more than one and a half year of struggle, that legislators calmly listened and responded to the reservations of concerned stakeholders. But yet again the government failed to protect fundamental rights and did not manage to provide constitutional safeguards in the bill.

The right to freedom of expression, privacy, online campaigning, and peaceful protests are at serious stake under this bill.

The amendments proposed by the committee lack the protection of journalist sources and whistle-blowers since the concerned sections in the bill were not touched upon. The right to express oneself freely in cyberspace is still in jeopardy, yet the power of censoring, blocking and removing online content under Section 34 will remain with the regulatory body of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) without any constitutional or judicial oversight.

Section 34 of this bill will be legitimising online censorship and is against the true spirit of the law. PTA, a regulatory body that works directly under the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication, is being given blanket authority to interpret the Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan.

The ‘so called’ reasonable restrictions imposed on freedom of expression under Article 19 will give the authority of interpretation to PTA, which means the role of reviewing the law is being transferred from the Supreme Court to the regulator. Once it becomes law, it becomes easy for PTA to direct internet service providers to block or censor content from any website, blog or social media. This will also limit the expression of publication houses and journalists operating online because PTA can also order them to remove specific content from their websites. Material that violates public health or obscene content, even content that is critical for religious integrity or against friendly relations of Pakistan with foreign countries—may be asked to be removed.

Last year in Mina, hundreds of pilgrims died in a stampede. Pakistani media houses were issued directives from Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA) to stop criticising Saudi mismanagement. However, the criticism on social media and blogging websites did not stop. If PECB was in effect at that point in time, PTA would enjoy the liberty of blocking such content on the internet as well.

Sections related to the dignity of a natural person (defamation) remain the same—which leaves a lot of space to criminalise satire and criticism. However, the section related to child pornography is proposed to be treated separately and dealt with more strictly.

In addition to this, sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 criminalise unauthorised access to digital forms of information or critical infrastructure. Copying or editing information would also be tantamount to offence. These sections will directly or indirectly restrict the working of investigative journalists in Pakistan, who by means of their sources and/or whistle-blowers’ access, copy and use information of public interest. The government is willingly in denial of giving exception to journalists and whistle-blowers. This is being done to discourage the Edward Snowdens and Julian Assanges of Pakistan, who unveiled the dangerous games of the big-brothers.

Any caricaturing of politicians or leaders, who are public figures and are often under criticism for their wrongdoings, could potentially be criminalised under Section 18 of this proposed bill, which deals with defamation in online spaces. It may not be possible for the cartoonist, Feica, to disseminate his satirical caricatures via online means because they might be perceived as offensive.

Sections relating to real-time surveillance and retention of traffic data have not been changed, where the privacy of citizens is being threatened, especially if the draconian Protection of Pakistan Ordinance is revived. This will legitimise the state sneaking in on private communications of ordinary citizens, journalists, human rights defenders, and other sensitive and/or marginalised groups. The government and its institutions have already been carrying out digital surveillance, but this bill is meant to legitimise them.

Pakistan’s top intelligence agency in June 2015 confessed in the Supreme Court that it taps around 7,000 telephone calls of Pakistani citizens on monthly basis. Similarly, the presence of FinFisher, a spyware intrusion suite on Pakistan’s telecommunication infrastructure is another confirmation of mass surveillance of Pakistani citizens.

The proposed amendments still duplicate the sections of cyber-terrorism, a subject totally out of the domain of the cybercrimes bill. Rather, the inclusion of a very broad section on hate speech is further adding insult to the injury without giving the definition of hate speech itself and its qualifications. Specifically, when there is no particular mechanism available in the country to distinguish between legitimate expressions and hate speech.

Speaking from real-life examples, critical memeing of teachings or leaders of politico-religious groups, such as those who actively supported and campaigned for Salmaan Taseer’s assassin—would tantamount to hate speech. And the creator and people involved in disseminating such content online may face charges under this cyber-terrorism clause. We have already witnessed the cases of Rizwan Haider and Saqlain Haider who were recently booked for 13 years for accessing and/or disseminating so called ‘hate material’ on Facebook.

In a nutshell, the proposed amendments are once again a plethora of vague and loosely knit terminologies exhibiting the mala fide intentions of the state in policing the internet in Pakistan.

Haroon Baloch

Haroon Baloch

The author is a journalist and digital rights researcher. He tweets at @advertbalcha (twitter.com/advertbalcha)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Anonymous Name

    I think even the progressive news sites like this one would be under threat.

    Lets see how all this roles out.Recommend

  • Juan

    Its quite draconian and open to abuse by different arms of the state. Who knows, this might get censored…Recommend