Killing Free Speech – Journal
THE PTI government sparked another controversy by issuing a presidential order that clearly threatens freedom of expression. On Sunday, Justice Minister Farogh Nasim announced at a press conference that the order amended the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act which was originally enacted by the PML-N government in 2016. Also at that time, media and civil society organizations had protested the content of the law and warned that it would be used to restrict the space for freedom of expression. The PTI government has now taken many steps to make this draconian law even more restrictive; its scope has been widened to include state institutions, such as the military and the judiciary, as injured parties. The latest amendments give authorities the power to arrest anyone accused of promoting or spreading fake news. The courts will have six months to decide whether the complaint is founded or not, but during this period the defendant is likely to remain incarcerated unless released on bail. This means that anyone can be arrested by the authorities on vague charges. This can lead to wild accusations resulting in random detentions. Frustration at the government’s refusal to budge on the issue was on display yesterday when the country’s major media outlets walked out of a meeting with the information ministry.
Such laws have no place in a democratic society. However, with each passing day, it becomes increasingly clear that the PTI government does not care about democratic standards. The government’s inexplicable postponement of the National Assembly session now makes sense — it was done so that this draconian ordinance could be enacted, bypassing parliament. It is ironic that the government is resorting to such high-handed tactics to silence its critics as the world moves towards decriminalizing defamation as a problem. The government’s malicious intentions are thinly disguised. The raid on media personality Mohsin Baig’s house and the manner in which he was arrested indicate that the government intends to use Peca to hunt people down in this way. Armed with these latest amendments, he can go wild and unleash a wave of repression against those who do not validate his point of view. This casts a dark shadow over the state of constitutional democracy in Pakistan and makes citizens vulnerable to further persecution.
The amendment is a crude attempt by the PTI government to intimidate its opponents and it must not be allowed to get away with it. The opposition, the media, civil society and all segments of the population must exercise their democratic rights to oppose this order and ensure that it is reversed. The judiciary must also play its part in ensuring that the government is not allowed to trample on the constitutional rights of citizens for its narrow self-interests. Peca is bad law. It shouldn’t be made worse.
Posted in Dawn, February 22, 2022