March 10, 2022 – While extending the order prohibiting the arrests under Section 20 of the recently passed PECA Amendment Ordinance, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has requested the Attorney General to advise the court on Monday, March 14. The Attorney General told the court today that the potential abuse of the law, i.e. Section 20 of PECA that criminalises defamation was realised when PECA Ordinance was signed. Prime Minister Imran Khan was informed about the legislation who expressed concern regarding the abuse, and asked, “How did it happen?” The Attorney General told the court that the Prime Minister was informed that this was a mistake, while regardless he has already said that the PECA Ordinance will have draconian impact if it is implemented in current form. The Attorney General said that the decision to do consultation with stakeholders on this has already been made.
He further stated that the implementation of the amendments under Section 20 has already been halted. Chief Justice Athar Minallah remarked that all the politicians and vloggers will also be behind bars if the amendments in section 20 are allowed to remain in place.
This was said during the hearing of clubbed petitions filed by various parties, including Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) and others to challenge the PECA Amendment Ordinances signed by the President on February 18, 2022. The Ordinance has attracted a fair share of attention and criticism from various stakeholders, including civil society, journalist community, opposition political parties and general public, for its ability to muzzle freedom of expression and criticism of government and state policies in the country. The Ordinance amends section 20 of the parent Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) that criminalises defamation, and broadens the scope of the law to grant protection to public officials, institutions and departments as compared to just aggrieved individuals or “natural persons.”
The Attorney General, on Thursday, told the Court that by removing the term “natural person” from section 20, the PECA Ordinance has enabled all institutions and departments to file complaints as well, and added that this amendment will not stand. He said that the government will take PFUJ, PBA, CPNE and all other relevant stakeholders on board for consultation. He also mentioned that the decision by the Court to not process any case under the Amendment Ordinance will be respected. Chief Justice Athar Minallah said that freedom of speech and free press are important.
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Reiterating the remarks from the hearing on March 1 regarding the abuse of power under PECA by the FIA, the Chief Justice remarked that the Director FIA must tell the Court why the agency prioritised the complaint filed by PTI MNA Kanwal Shozab when there were 95,000 complaints still pending. Kanwal Shozab said that she was subjected to character assassination at the hands of her neighbour who raised an environmental matter in the neighbourhood, while her lawyer said in the court at the time that she was slandered, the Islamic punishment for which is stone pelting.
Chief Justice Athar Minallah said that all of this is happening because of the political parties. Every political party has social media teams, what are they for? Are they working to initiate campaigns against judges and other people, the Court asked. It remarked that these issues will be resolved if all political parties decide that none of their followers will be disrespectful on social media.
The PFUJ lawyer who was present during the hearing, said that the Attorney General has already said that he does not defend half of the PECA Ordinance, and we are ready to sit with him to consult on the Ordinance. Whereas, Advocate Imaan Mazari raised the question of why the government did not consult stakeholders before passing amendments as Ordinance? Chief Justice Athar Minallah remarked that it is possible that the Ordinance is reversed if all stakeholders consult on the matter.
The next hearing on the application is fixed on March 14, 2022.