The ruling party has maintained its streak of taking decisions by surpassing the National Assembly and those that are in line with its autocratic approach to curtail freedom of expression. Its latest decision comes in the form of amendments in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 and the Election Act. The ordinances were promulgated by President Arif Alvi on Sunday while the opposition parties lambasted the incumbent government for aiming to ‘gag dissent’. The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has heavily relied on presidential ordinances for legislation since 2018 as they surpass the democratic need to engage with the opposition. The amendment in PECA has now made online defamation or fake news a non-bailable offence, whereas it has also increased the jail term for it from three years to five years. Inevitably, the ambit of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been broadened but at a time when the legality of PECA’s section 20 is already under scrutiny in the Islamabad High Court.
The amendment came over night, just a day after media personality Mohsin Baig was arrested from his home by the cybercrime agency following his remarks on Communication Minister Murad Saeed during a show on a private TV channel. Whether the statement made during a live talk show was ethical or not is another debate but the shrinking space for dissent in the country should raise questions. And the new PECA law will only open a floodgate of cases against ‘controversial’ social media content as it now allows anyone to file a complaint against defamation. Superior courts had previously ruled that only the aggrieved person could file a complaint.
What is surprising is the fact that it comes from a party, which has also used such platforms for political point-scoring. It was just last month when one of PM’s special aides had said that Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supremo Nawaz Sharif’s doctor had recommended him to get married. Since it came to power, the Prime Minister Imran Khan-led government has floated draconian laws to curtail voices of dissent. While previous proposed laws were rejected by media bodies and didn’t see the light of day, amendments in PECA were made without taking stakeholders on board. Moreover, the new social media rules notified in October last year had also not provided any incentive and protection to content creators. The incumbent government should look across the border to India to understand the cost of imposing draconian laws and curtailing dissent. The decision should be revised before we are also pushed backwards.