PECA: Prevention of Fake News or A Black Law?

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Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) government has introduced new amendments in the law to control and govern social media on the Internet.

Through an ordinance, President of Islamic Republic of Pakistan Dr. Arif Alvi approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which changed the definition of ‘person’.

According to this new definition ‘person’ may include any company, association, institution or authority; attack on the identity of any individual will result in imprisonment for 5 years.

What is ordinance?

Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution, widely acclaimed as democratic and enjoying broad national consensus, retains the provision for ordinances in the form of Article 89 which states that the “President may, except when the Senate or National Assembly is in session, if satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action, make and promulgate an ordinance, as the circumstances may require”. The ordinance thus promulgated is valid for 120 days unless the National Assembly, in the case of money bills, and either of the two houses of parliament in other cases, passes a resolution disapproving the ordinance.

Although this ordinance is introduced to curtail the freedom of social media, under this ordinance exemption granted to Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) licensed TV channels has been abolished. Now the same rules and regulations have to be followed by social media and TV Channels simultaneously. Any violation of these laws will result in the same consequences; no matter which platform is being used i.e. uploading content on social media or on-airing it through a licensed TV channel. It means now criticism has become a non bail-able crime under the ordinance and the police would have the power to arrest any critic. Amendment to section 44 of the PECA sets a time limit of 6 months for disposal of cases and directs the High Court to appoint judges under PECA.  Another amendment would make defamation a non-compliant offense, meaning that the victim cannot settle the matter out of court despite having reached an agreement with the complainant.

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Under this ordinance the exemption for PEMRA licensed TV channels has been revoked in the Electronic Crimes Act 2016, after which fake news or ridicule about any ‘individual’ on television can also be considered as electronic crime which will now carry a five-year prison sentence.

Federal Law Minister Barrister Forogh Naseem is a huge supporter of this new law. While speaking to Eat News he said, “Aim was only to bring ‘reforms in the media’ where misinformation badly damaged social norms and defamed many people including the family of former Chief Justice of Pakistan and Prime Minister Imran Khan”.

“Government’s move, pointing out that the right to file a defamation suit online is not limited to the victim, now this right has been given to anyone”, the Federal Law Minister was explaining the salient features and strongly defending the PECA.

During a telephonic conversation Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Farrukh Habib told Eat News “if crime is non-bailable, it means the ratio of such kinds of offence will decrease. We are working on the definition of fake news; the amendment in the PECA ordinance, which is being talked about, is not related to journalists, the punishment in the ordinance has been increased to 5 year. Cybercrime is destroying our social fabric; the lives of our women have been ruined due to cyber crimes.”

He said that he will talk to the Media Joint Action Committee, and listen to their concerns carefully as this Committee has its own stance on this issue.

The Media Joint Action Committee has walked out of the meeting of the information minister on the issue of amendments in the PECA. Said committee consists of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA) and some other journalist organizations.

All journalist organizations in a joint statement rejected the PECA. Opposition parties also criticized the government and declared it as a ‘black law’.

Former Prime Minister and current Leader of opposition in Senate. Senator Syed Yousif Raza Gillani during discussion with Eat News said, “through PECA laws, the government wants to veto media, opposition and civil society, so that nothing can be said against them (the government). They want to make strict laws. We have abolished strict laws in our government tenure (2008-2013) and brought the laws on access to information”.

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Yousuf Raza Gilani said, “We will challenge the PECA in court of justice, it has been rejected by all parties and media organizations and we also discard it”.

Former Federal Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Maryam Aurangzaib and the central spokesperson of the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has strongly criticized the government, saying that the PECA Ordinance has been brought to curb freedom of expression and speech.

“The sudden introduction of an ordinance by the government is beyond understanding. It is an attempt by PM Imran Khan to psychologically enslave 220 million people and that is why amendments have been made. The amendments were made because Imran Khan could not face criticism against him and his government. There was no definition of the charge, which would be punished under the law for telling fake news”, she was speaking to Eat News.

In November 2020, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government enacted social media laws under PECA, which was criticized by digital rights activists. Internet service providers of Pakistan and the Asia Internet Coalition termed this law as barbaric.

Technology companies have also threatened to cut off their services in Pakistan, saying it would be difficult for them to continue their work if the rules were not changed.

PECA, issued by the President, will open the floodgates of litigation against potentially ‘controversial’ social media content.  Moreover the size, scope and scale of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has also been widened as they can nab any one for investigations without an arrest warrant.

The Islamabad High Court (IHC) had made it clear that no one other than the victim can file a defamation suit but after the enactment of the ordinance, any person or entity that is not necessarily an affected party will be able to file a defamation suit.

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Journalists and lawyers have already challenged PECA ordinance in Islamabad High Court (IHC) and Lahore High Court (LHC) respectively.

The annual report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Pakistan 145 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index in 2021.

Critics believe that legislation like PECA will not only damage the popularity graph of PTI but a negative message will also be dispatched to the international community regarding the poor conditions of freedom of speech and expression in Pakistan. 

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Muhammad Farhan Niazi is a correspondent for Eat News in Pakistan and is an experienced senior producer with a demonstrated history of working in the media production industry. Skilled in feature and news writing, non-linear editing, radio, multimedia journalism, Online journalism, film production, and sound. Strong media and communication professional graduated from University of Peshawar.

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