The National Assembly adopted on Wednesday a cybercrime bill that proposes rigorous penalties for creating fear or panic and stoking sectarian discord in the country, while exempting children less than 14-year of age from the offence.
Hardly a dozen or more lawmakers were present in the house when the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, 2016 was tabled. It was cleared but not before an hour-long debate between opposition lawmakers and State Minister for IT Anusha Rehman. Now, the controversial bill will be laid in the Senate where the opposition is in majority.
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Lawmakers from various opposition parties, including PPP’s Shazia Marri and Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho, PTI’s Dr Shireen Mazari and Dr Arif Alvi, MQM’s Ali Raza Abidi and SA Iqbal Qadri and Jamaat-e-Islami’s Ayesha Syed proposed amendments which were mostly incorporated. But some other amendments proposed by opposition lawmakers were later withdrawn by the movers.
Initially, the bill was introduced in the house by the IT minister in January 2015 but it was referred to the Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication to address concerns voiced by opposition lawmakers and stakeholders. The debate lingered on for over a year as some of its provisions and penalties proposed were, according to opposition lawmakers, highly controversial.
But the IT minister said the bill was drafted after months of brainstorming and that it safeguarded civil liberties guaranteed in the 1973 Constitution. “We do not have any mechanism to stop the misuse of cyberspace,” she said, adding that the legislation was part of the National Action Plan against terrorism.
The bill says whoever coerces, intimidates, or creates a sense of fear, panic or insecurity in the government or public or a section of a community or sect, including advances religious, ethnic or sectarian discord shall be punished with 14-year jail-term, or up to Rs50 million fine, or both.
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Similarly, glorification of an offence and hate speech, including its dissemination through information system, shall be punished with a five-year imprisonment or up to Rs10 million fine, or both. Glorification includes depiction of any form of praise or celebration in a desirable manner.
Moreover, the bill proposes two-year imprisonment or up to Rs500,000 fine, or both, for unauthorised use of Subscriber Identification Module (SIM), etc, including unauthorised interception or transmission that is not meant for public.
Clause 19 of the bill says whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits or superimposes a photograph of a natural person over any sexually explicit image or the picture is distorted, including any video, for the same purpose shall be sentenced to 10-year in prison, or subjected to Rs10 million fine, or both.
About cyber stalking, the bill states that anyone who coerces or intimidates or harasses any person using information system, internet, website, electronic email or any other similar communication shall be liable to one year jail term or Rs1 million fine. If the victim is a minor, the jail term shall be extended to five years, or the fine shall be increased to Rs10million, or both.
One of the controversial clauses of the bill witch triggered a long debate in the house between the IT minister and PTI’s Dr Arif Alvi was definition of ‘unlawful content’.
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The clause states that the federal government shall have the power to remove or block or issue directions for removal or blocking of access to any information if it is against the interest of the glory of Islam or integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court of commission of or incitement to an offence under the act.
Dr Alvi asked the minister decency and morality was a vague term and must be clearly defined. The IT minister said the term was taken from the Constitution. Subsequently, Dr Alvi’s objection was rejected.
The proposed law also allows the federal government to establish an investigation agency for such offences and with powers to investigate them. The agency shall have the power to issue warrant for search and seizure of offensive or controversial content.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2016.