The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) was passed in the National Assembly on April 13 and will now be presented before the Senate, where it is hoped that a much more lively debate on its clauses will occur than the one witnessed in the lower house. The PECB was initially introduced in January 2015, drawing sharp criticism from the opposition, as well as civil rights activists who described the Bill as being vague, draconian, unreasonable and outdated. They proposed amendments to the PECB, some of which have been adopted, but some features and harsh punishments continue to be worrying.
There is no doubt that Pakistan has needed a rigorous and well thought-out plan to deal with terrorism, with cyberspace having been used to good effect in spreading hatred and forwarding a nefarious agenda. Hate speech has become increasingly common on social media and there is a clear need to curb it. But in that pursuit, the fine line between coming down hard on hate speech and subverting the right to free speech has become hazy and that is where the PECB was supposed to provide the balance. The earlier version of the Bill leaned more towards censorship and this is why it took over a year to get it cleared in the National Assembly. Even now, there are clauses that border on the invasion of civil rights, and we hope there is a more meaningful discussion in the Senate. Cyber stalking, bullying and harassment are issues that need to be dealt with and we welcome the measures instituted in the Bill in this regard. At the same time, worryingly, there are clauses which allow the government the power to remove, block or issue directions for the removal of, or blocking access to, any information if it is against “public order, decency or morality”. How exactly can we define what is decent and moral in a country that is deeply divided on every other issue and who gets to determine these definitions? Additionally, a fine and imprisonment for sending messages “irritating to others or for marketing purposes”, would mean that most businesses could end up being penalised. We welcome the fact that amendments to the earlier version of the Bill were made, but this is not enough as there are still ambiguities regarding whether it aims to stomp down on terrorism and hate speech or curb the right to free speech and civil liberties.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2016.
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