February 23, 2022 – A coalition of civil society organisations, digital media outlets, political collectives and individuals have signed a joint statement expressing concern over the recently passed amendments in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) through a presidential ordinance. The statement termed the PECA Ordinance 2022, “an affront to online free expression in the country, amounting to unprecedented censorship and chilling of free speech in digital spaces.”
The President of Pakistan Dr. Arif Alvi, on February 18, signed an ordinance approving multiple amendments in section 20 of PECA that criminalises defamation in the country. These amendments widen the scope of defamation and enable organisations and entities – including government departments and institutions, to file a complaint against anyone for online defamation. The Ordinance makes the previously bailable offence a non-bailable offence, and increases the penalty from three years to five years.
The joint statement highlights that s.20 has already been used to silence journalists, activists and victims and survivors of gender based violence, and reminds that the civil society has been calling for the repeal of this “problematic section.” The Ordinance, particularly the expansion in section 20, has been widely criticised by internet users, civil society and the journalist community for its intention to stifle criticism of state policies and public officials on the internet. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has challenged the ordinance in Islamabad High Court, in response of which Chief Justice Athar Minallah stopped FIA from arresting anyone under this amendment, during a hearing on February 23.
The Court also highlighted that countries around the world are moving away from criminalising defamation, and said that defamation laws should not exist for public officials who should be open to criticism from the public. The recent joint statement signed by some of the leading digital rights organisations and digital media outlets in the country, states that, “Criminal defamation is internationally recognised to be violative of the freedom of expression, especially when civil remedies exist in the law,” adding, “The amendments […] are neither proportionate (as they expand the term of punishment from 3 to 5 years) nor necessary.”
It further says, “The use of an Ordinance to amend a law passed by Parliament is extremely worrisome and part of an alarming trend where the government is using its extraordinary powers of Ordinance-making to erode the powers of the Parliament and lawmaking institutions.” The Ordinance was passed on February 18, a day after the Senate concluded its sessions which, PFUJ in its petition to IHC says, is a deliberate attempt to avoid public consultations on the amendments since the draft was already ready beforehand.
In addition to this, political opposition parties including Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) have also expressed disapproval on the Ordinance. Whereas, the Minister of IT and Telecom Syed Amin ul Haque has written a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan expressing concern on the reaction of the media community on the recent ordinance, highlighting that the amendments were drafted without constructive consultation with the relevant stakeholders. The Minister of IT wrote, “It is only through dialogue and deliberation that media practitioners and the government can establish procedures to curtail fake news, and I urge you to launch this process at the earliest and withdraw/review the ordinance.”
The joint statement by various organisations urge citizens to recognise the ordinance as “an attack on their Constitutional right to free expression and access to information.” It says that the law will become a tool to completely silence differing opinions or forms of expression in the country.
Furthermore, the statement calls on the opposition parties to “course correct and block this Ordinance from becoming a permanent feature of the law,” and urges that political parties must repeal section 20 through the Parliament – a demand that the civil society has maintained since PECA was passed. Lastly, the signatories demand that the government “immediately withdraw the Ordinance and refrain from presenting it for assent once the three-month lifespan of the Ordinance lapses.”
The full statement can be accessed here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Gg_E0-bu_kCMdZygMPSbYgNvjnPoEFTZ9IgFuw9Xlvg/edit?usp=sharing