In what appears to be the first U-turn of the new government, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Saturday ordered the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to immediately withdraw a petition filed in the Supreme Court, challenging the Islamabad High Court’s judgment that declared Section 20 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) “unconstitutional”.
Apparently, the prime minister’s directives to the FIA were issued after the government was severely criticised on social media for approaching the top court to restore a clause that made online public defamation a cognisable and a non-bailable offence and also increased the jail term for defaming any person or institution from three years to five years.
Hours after the filing of the petition, the government distanced itself from the FIA’s move. It claimed that the agency had approached the apex court on its own and the premier and other cabinet ministers learned about it later.
Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb announced that the petition was “immediately withdrawn”.
In a series of tweets, the government’s spokesperson maintained: “The prime minister and I learned a short while ago that the FIA has filed a petition in the SC against the IHC judgement regarding the PECA Act, 2016, to seek restoration of Section 20 of the Act.”
She added that the petition stood withdrawn immediately as “it is squarely against the government’s stated policy and principle of standing for and ensuring freedom of expression”.
In addition, the minister stated that the prime minister had taken “strict notice” of the filing of the petition.
Marriyum claimed that unfortunately, the news of the petition reached them a little late as they were in Bisham for a public rally during the day where there were no phone signals.
Soon after Marriyum’s tweets, the FIA also tweeted to admit that the petition was filed without the government’s permission and it was “immediately” withdrawn.
“The FIA filed the appeal in the Supreme Court regarding striking off a portion of Section 20 of PECA 2016,” FIA spokesperson tweeted. “The FIA filed it without getting permission from the Ministry of Interior (and) Government. The appeal is being withdrawn immediately.”
Earlier in the day, the FIA had filed a petition in the apex court stating that the IHC had provided the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) relief “without legal justification” and claimed that the high court had misinterpreted Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has welcomed the government’s move.
For cordial media-government relations, dialogue is the only solution to ensure the right of expression and press freedom, it said in a statement issued on its official Twitter handle.