In the midst of political chaos stirred up by the no-confidence vote against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Chief Imran Khan – who was consequently booted from Prime Minister’s Office last week – a ruling by the Islamabad High Court regarding the PECA Amendment Ordinance 2022 was welcomed by everyone who had been fighting to have the Ordinance repealed. The court declared the amendment to the cybercrimes act “unconstitutional”, reinstating that it impeded freedom of speech as ensured in the Constitution.
Since its promulgation by President Arif Alvi in February 2022, the PECA Amendment Ordinance had been receiving a barrage of criticism from journalists, civil society actors, feminist collectives, and others for attempting to curb legitimate criticism on the government and stifle a right as fundamental as free speech. The amendment made headlines even internationally, attracting widespread attention and raising concerns on the safeguard of freedom of speech online in Pakistan.
The IHC’s verdict gathered widespread praise and approval, particularly from journalists, lawmakers, feminist activists and human rights defenders who, in addition to terming it a “victory” for everyone who battled to have the controversial tweaks abrogated, hoped that it would play a leading role in ensuring further safeguard of freedom of speech by the government.
Under the amendment, online defamation was declared a non-bailable and cognisable offence, stretching jail term from three years to five years. The government 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. In opposition to this amendment ordinance, petitions had been filed in the Islamabad High Court by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), former senator Farhatullah Babar, and Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA). A joint statement to condemn the amendment was also signed by a coalition of several digital media outlets, civil society organisations and dissenting individuals.
The verdict quashing the PECA Amendment Ordinance and parts of language used in Section 20 was followed by the Federal Investigation Agency closing around 7000 complaints filed under the same section. From all that was said and done in court, it was clear that the federation had failed to satisfy law regarding the amendment’s promulgation through presidential ordinance despite being granted several chances.
While continued efforts from the parties that rallied for the repeal of this ordinance are much appreciated, the question that now begs attention is: What’s going to happen next? The cybercrime act, also known as PECA, exists with all its ambiguous and problematic content to ensure a formulated control on criticism of state policies and public office holders. The document still allows unbridled powers that infringe upon a citizen’s right to expression and compromise their privacy. How, in the presence of such a draconian law as PECA, can a society thrive when it comes to freedom of speech? How the verdict to strike down an amendment ordinance to PECA can guarantee the right to expression without inviting blowback?
In order to understand what changes warranted protests, let’s look at PECA’s Section 20 which, even before the ordinance surfaced to the forefront, remained a widely debated and highly controversial part of the act. Surrounding defamation, this section of PECA was vigilantly opposed by defenders of free speech for its vague contents and threatening nature, especially against victims and survivors of harassment whose last resort to speak out is usually through social media.
The party in power at the time of PECA’s enforcement in 2016 was Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN). After the ousting of Imran Khan from the parliament as Prime Minister in the past week, ironically, newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, a prominent from the same party that brought in PECA, was among the many who congratulated everyone involved on their struggle to get the “draconian” PECA Amendment Ordinance declared as unconstitutional.
Congratulations to all media bodies & civil society organizations on their struggle to get draconian PECA Ordinance declared as ‘unconstitutional’. It marks a great victory for our media & democratic forces. Last 4 years have witnessed unprecedented curbs on freedom of expression
— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) April 9, 2022
Where the verdict discarding the ordinance may be seen as a light at the end of the tunnel, a lot more needs to be done to ensure safety for fundamental rights and, most importantly, to foster an environment that is conducive to giving a platform to voices from all quarters without the fear of being silenced through laws that can be conveniently weaponised to evade critique and justice. In the recent past, organised attacks, including smear campaigns, on journalists have evidently highlighted how difference of opinion can lead to severe repercussions in Pakistan, even when they are aired from a professional grid. Women, in particular, can be on the receiving end of incessant aspersion online – even from the federal quarters – that can extend through days, often forcing them to rethink their decision to exercise their right to expression.
In light of the recent events, especially after PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif’s appointment as prime minister, it is only essential that laws like PECA are barred from resurfacing for amendments in manners that pose a threat to freedom of speech. Given the PM’s statement reflecting his views that clearly contradicted the nature of the PECA Amendment Ordinance 2022, it is only expected of the government that draconian laws that hinder free speech, silence dissenting voices, and create a hostile environment for the marginalised, like the section 20 of PECA, are struck down. A free media that is allowed to value and accommodate the beauty of differences, plurality and inclusivity is the one that helps ensure a flourishing democratic society.