PECA exposed as the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz falls victim to the law

ISLAMABAD: The ruling party PML-N has become a victim of the very law it pushed through, as two of its workers were arrested under cyber terrorism sections in Prevention of Electronic Crime Act. The arrest of workers and news about a larger crackdown on PML-N’s social media team has laid bare the futility of the government’s claims that the law incorporates protection mechanisms to counter such abuse.

Earlier on October 20, as the news of arrests began doing the rounds, Media Matters for Democracy reached out to Federal Investigation Agency’s cyber crime wing in Islamabad to ascertain the reasons for the arrest. However, FIA officials in Islamabad expressed ignorance about the incident and could not give a clear answer as to who had ordered the arrest of the PML-N workers. It was not until the late evening that MMfD got hold a copy of FIR lodged with Rawalpindi zonal office of the FIA.

To get clarity on the nature of the arrests, some rights activists also reached out to Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal. However, the Federal Interior Minister also claimed ignorance about the arrests and tweeted that the Ministry was investigating that ‘on whose order these people were picked up’. Speaking to MMfD, a spokesperson of Interior Ministry said that so far inquiry findings into this case could not be finalized.

The original FIR shows that the FIA had included terrorism charges under sections 9 and 10 A of Prevention of Electronic Crime Act against two political workers. However, Pakistan Today reported that the terrorism sections have been removed from the FIR at the behest of Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal to allow bail of one of the participants.

The fabled social media team
News reports have pointed towards a larger scale action against members of a social media team being managed by Maryam Nawaz Sharif. The team members are accused of defaming national institutions including the judiciary and army. Sources reveal that detained political workers have been interrogated about their affiliation with the PML-N social media wing.

Despite the alleged crackdown against the social media team members, PML-N representatives, including Maryam Nawaz Sharif herself continue to deny the existence of this team. Despite the ‘on record denials’, it has been learned from reliable sources that a social media team set up by the former Prime Minister’s daughter is functioning from party headquarters in Model Town, Lahore.

The PML-N feels the heat
Following the apparent crackdown, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called the arrests anti-democratic and took a pro-freedom of expression stance. However, for activists involved in advocacy over the cybercrime legislation, this stance remains hypocritical. “When it comes to their own workers, they remember freedom of expression. When members of other political parties are picked, they try to hide behind national security,” said Aleena Alavi, a lawyer who was actively involved in advocacy for incorporation of protection mechanisms within the cybercrime law.

Alavi also expressed disappointment at the lack of coordination among FIA headquarters and zonal offices. “The fact that FIA Islamabad did not know about the arrests by the zonal office in first place points towards the lack of coordination within FIA ranks”, she said.

Some sources on the condition of anonymity expressed concern that elements within security agencies might be behind the arrests of the workers.  Under PECA, only Federal Investigation Agency is designated as the investigating and prosecuting agency.

Image Courtesy: Daily Pakistan

Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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