The state of freedom of expression in Pakistan is a secret to none. With journalists and media workers attacked with alarming frequency and complete impunity, censorship increasingly common, secret funds and the ill kept secret of ‘journalists’ being planted in media channels to push certain narratives, the country’s media faces a dire situation. As a result, the media has increasingly lost credibility, learnt to self censor or tilt stories in order to appease the powers that be and has continued to suffer threats, attacks and intimidation tactics.
With the mainstream media tamed, the guns are now pointed at the digital sphere. Internet, upheld as a medium of empowerment and alternate discourse worldwide, is being seen as a serious threat by the government. As a result, in the name of Cybercrime legislation, the PML-N government is trying its best to enact a bill that seeks to neuter the Internet’s capacity to be a source of political and ideological discourse.
Using the pretext of National Action Plan and counter terrorism, the government has pushed through a very controversial draft of Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill 2015. The draft contains multiple clauses that can be used to clamp down on political or ideological speech. Most dangerously the bill fails to draw clear distinction between hate speech, incitement and terrorism. It criminalises speech that falls under multiple vaguely defined subjective frames like “glorification of an offence”. More so, section 9 of the draft makes it a criminal act to “glorify” anyone “accused or convicted of a crime” – one has to hope that it is only a lack of clarity and not ill will that led to this peculiar wording – criminalising glorification of someone accused of an offence would technically mean that praising the political legend Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto would be akin to glorifying a convicted criminal. In fact anyone praising Mr. Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan should face up to five years in prison and a fine of ten million rupees as the PM is still a respondent in a murder case registered in Islamabad in September 2014.
PECB 2015 criminalise glorification of those convicted and/or accused in a criminal case. Bhutto was convicted by a Pakistani Court and ‘Bhuttoism’ is the mantra of People Party Pakistan.
Strangely, there is not a single act in Pakistan Penal Code under which those celebrating self confessed murderer Mumtaz Qadri, by showering him with flowers and offering free legal service can be convicted of terrorism – but online similar conduct can bring a terrorism change, up to 14 years in prison and a fine of 50 million rupees. One has to conclude, that the government is trying really hard to create a false sense of security instead of tackling the real issue of intolerance and celebration of violence in the name of religion.
The draft also gives PTA the authority to “manage” online content by blocking without explanation anything that by their interpretation appears to threaten “glory of Islam” or affect “friendly relations with foreign states” or is simply against “morality” or “decency”. All caveats, as can be seen, are ill defined, subjective and completely open to interpretation. Under this bill then, an investigation or a commentary on Saudi Arabia’s alleged funding of terrorist / militant organisations or corruption in multi million dollar deals with China can be taken down as they might threaten friendly relations with these states. One doesn’t even need to explain why decency or morality aren’t the best frames within which digital content can or should be filtered.
What is most dangerous about this draft is the false sense of security that is being promoted by linking it to National Action Plan – a temporary counter terrorism framework. The government is happy to pass this off as a heroic effort to counter terrorism and frames its arguments within the context of violent hate speech by sectarian and terrorist outfits or as a way to protect women who suffer from online abuse. However, it fails to mention that acts of violence or incitement, especially an act that leads to physical violence or terrorism is already punishable under Pakistan Penal Code and the multiple anti terrorism acts currently in effect.
This in fact is an attempt to curb speech by taking advantage of a situation where manipulation of rights does not lead to public protests as they are being done under the guise of beating terrorists and promoting greater good. In the long run, attempts to compromise the civil liberties and blocks on free speech only harm democratic and political development. A cybercrime legislation does not have the power or even the mandate to tackle terrorism in a country – by drafting a law within the frame of counter terrorism, the government has legitimised NAP and various undemocratic actions under it as a viable long term policy framework without giving heed to the fact this will only destabilise the political process.
Image Courtesy: Outlook Afghanistan.