The Standing Committee on Information, Technology and Telecommunications meets today (26th July 2016) to finalise the recommendations for amendments in Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill, 2016. In all likelihood, the bill will be tabled in Senate soon and its immediate fate decided in this session. At this point, the Senate can either pass the Bill as is or send it back to the National Assembly for consideration of proposed amendments.
There has been a brief period of engagement with the civil society and other stakeholders on concerns regarding the rights based implications of this Bill. However, how many of these concerns and recommendations for removal of draconian, anti human rights sections of the Bill have actually been incorporated into the committee’s recommendations remains to be seen. During the consultations, the IT Ministry’s legal department has constantly been present. Unsurprisingly, the team has denied the validity of human rights concerns, taking conflicting positions about the issue of abuse of power and lack of protections within the bill – whereas, the introduction of lenient investigative procedures and harsher punishments for crimes already covered in Pakistan Penal Code and other Acts has been justified by claiming ‘uniqueness of the internet as a medium’, the lack of any defences and protection for the public has been dismissed as them being able to claim general protections given in PPC. But most bizzare has been the ministry’s claim that civil society’s concerns are rooted in constitutional and fundamental rights and not directly linked to criminal justice system.
It is important to remind the IT Ministry that criminal justice system and all laws exist primarily to govern and protect the practice of basic fundamental rights. The bill poses grave threats to multiple fundamental rights including the rights to freedom of expression, opinion, right to information, right to privacy and right to fair trail. Over the last year and half, civil society members have highlighted and raised these concerns many times over. The constant refusal of the IT ministry to address these concerns or even to acknowledge the truth behind them has been alarming. It is extremely unfortunate that an elected government has refused to uphold democratic values and has persistently defended a piece of legislation that breaches citizen’s fundamental rights. The Minister’s refusal to even attempt and see merit in the efforts to improve this legislation and bring it in line with constitutional guarantees and international best practices reeks of ill intent.
Cybercrime is a growing menace and the country needs a good law to criminalise and regulate issues related to this sector. However, the government is trying to use the need for this law as an excuse to ligitimise violation of citizen’s privacy, transfer the legislative’s power to an executive authority and lay the grounds for unprecedented and unchallenged censorship. In a country where not one or two but numerous pieces of laws violate democratic traditions, it isn’t surprising that this law has not received the kind of scrutiny or opposition from parliamentary stakeholders as it should have. However, constant criticism from stakeholders outside the parliament has at least ensured that concerns are known and highlighted and has allowed the debate to extend for over a year.
One hopes that today, as the Senate moves to take a decision on this Bill, the legislators will stand united against this blatant attempt to violate citizen’s rights and ensure this regressive Act is replaced by one that actually does what it claims; protecting citizens’ from cybercrime.