May 7, 2022 – The Federal Government, through Director General Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), has challenged in the Supreme Court the Islamabad High Court’s (IHC) verdict against Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) that declared it “unconstitutional”.
In its application, the FIA has requested the Supreme Court to suspend IHC’s ruling dated April 8, 2022. The agency argues that the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) was provided relief by the court “without any lawful justification”, claiming that the inactivity of Section 20 after the order will result in violations. The application further said that the IHC has interpreted Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution incorrectly, and stated that the agency has never violated Article 19.
The FIA seeks stay against the IHC’s order until a verdict on the agency’s appeal is announced.
The widely applauded verdict regarding Section 20 of PECA was announced by IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah last month in a hearing of the petitions challenging the PECA Amendment Ordinance 2022. They were filed by various parties, including the PFUJ, Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), and former senator Farhatullah Babar. Through the ordinance, the former PTI-led government declared defamation a non-bailable and cognisable offence, extending jail term to five years from three. It also sought to grant PECA additional authority to cover companies, organisations or any other bodies, set up by the federation, and who could take anyone to court on charges of defaming them.
Scrapping the ordinance, the IHC had declared part of the language used in Section 20 of PECA, under which the ordinance was drafted, “unconstitutional” and had struck it down as well. The court had also quashed cases filed by the FIA under Section 20, ordering an investigation into the “abuse of power” by the FIA under the cybercrime act. Subsequently, the FIA had closed around 7,000 complaints filed under the same section.
“The criminalisation of defamation, protection of individual reputations through arrest and imprisonment, and the resultant chilling effect violates the letter of the Constitution and the invalidity thereof is beyond reasonable doubt,” states the order dated April 8, 2022.
The ruling was widely welcomed and praised by journalists, feminist collectives, and human rights and free speech defendors, who have repeatedly called PECA a weapon to silence dissenting voices, curb legimitate criticism on the government and stifle free speech.
Maryam Aurangzeb, the newly appointed Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, in a press conference on April 19, also said that the new government will review “draconian” laws and revisit PECA.
The cybercrime act, since being introduced by the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PNL-N) in 2016, has been the centre of debate for its problematic and vague content that threatens the freedom of speech as guaranteed in the Constitution.