February 22, 2022 – The amendment in the prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 through a presidential ordinance on February 18 has been challenged in Islamabad High Court. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), in its petition to the Court, said that there was no emergency to pass the amendment, in fact, the ordinance was signed only to dodge the democratic law making process which reveals the malicious motives of the government. The petition further said that the attack on freedom of expression is an attempt to sabotage democracy in the country.
PFUJ submitted the petition against the amendment in PECA in IHC through its authorised representative Rizwan Qazi, in which secretary of the President of Pakistan Dr. Arif Alvi, Federal government through Secretaries Ministry of Law and Ministry of Information Broadcasting & National Heritage are party. The petition states that the Cabinet was in session until February 17, despite this, the government passed the amendment through an Ordinance. The copy of the Ordinance that was posted online is dated February 18. PFUJ says that the draft was ready beforehand, but the government waited until the Cabinet sessions were over to pass the amendment. It highlights that the National Assembly meeting was scheduled for February 18 which was cancelled at the last minute.
The petition further says that many journalists were illegally arrested in the past using this particular section of PECA, i.e. Section 20, and it has now been amended to make it further restrictive. In addition to the threat to freedom of expression through the Ordinance, another new section 44A has been added in the Act that the PFUJ petition says is against the Constitutional freedoms of the judiciary. It further stated that no country can survive under an autocratic regime where citizens do not have even the fundamental right to freedom of speech. The petition requested the Court to declare the amendment in PECA in violation of the Constitution of Pakistan and against the fundamental rights.
The Islamabad High Court, in its written order in the case registered by journalist Mohsin Baig, has already raised questions on the restrictions on freedom of expression in the country. Chief Justice Athar Minallah in his order said that military action on complaints of defamation is against democratic principles; public office holders know from the beginning that there will be a thorough public scrutiny. He remarked that no matter how serious the criticism of the public is, it cannot be responded to with a case of criminal defamation against them.