A Pakistani bill designed to prevent the misuse of Internet and digital technology in committing crime and terrorism is now one step closer to being adopted into law.
But rights campaigners are opposing the Prevention of Electronics Crimes Bill 2016 (PECB), saying it empowers government agencies and threatens the rights and liberties of ordinary Pakistanis.
Islamabad says the law aims to curb terrorism, fraud, cyberattacks, hate speech, and child pornography. Officials say existing laws cannot cope with the threats and issues presented by the digital age.
A thin majority in the lower house or National Assembly of Pakistan adopted the bill in April. On July 26, a panel adopted it for deliberations in the Senate, the upper house of Pakistani Parliament. The Pakistani president will sign it into law once the Senate adopts it with a majority vote.
Zohra Yusuf, head of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, opposed the bill’s adoption in its current form.
“In its present form, [this bill] has immense ramifications for the practice of the constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms of expression, privacy, human rights, and democracy in the country,” Yusuf said in a statement issued on July 26.
The proposed law recommends sentences of up to 14 years and $500,000 in fines for what it deems “electronic crimes.” It allows Pakistani courts to try a suspect even if the alleged crimes were committed outside Pakistan and envisions a special court for cybercrimes.
While the tough wording of the bill appeals to many in a society that faces terrorist violence, sectarian hatred, and a spike in Internet fraud, Yusuf said the proposed law goes against existing Pakistani laws.
“One of the main concerns regarding the PECB is that it redefines various offenses already defined under the Pakistan Penal Code and elsewhere -- often in conflict with other laws and almost always with harsher punishments and more lenient processes,” Yusuf said. “Several sections include vague and general formulations and contradictions. It is important to remove such provisions.”
Yusuf said Pakistani campaigners are alarmed by the powers this bill would give the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (PTA), a government organization.
“A body with such extensive powers has to be completely independent of government control, which is not the case with the PTA,” Yusuf said. “Of particularly grave concern is its lack of safeguards and checks on the exercising of authority by the investigative agency and the PTA.”
Writing for the liberal Humsub website, Mohammad Shoiab warns of the potential abuse of the PECB.
“It will prove a means or even a weapon for our security services to silence anyone disagreeing with their narratives or viewpoints,” he wrote. “We do need a law to prevent cybercrimes, but this law includes vague clauses to protect ‘Islam, Pakistan’s Ideology and morality’ -- in the past such provisions have been used to provide cover for oppression by the state.”
While media outlets, and television channels in particular, have mushroomed in Pakistan during the past decade, it is now seen as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Amid accusations that intelligence agents were behind some attacks on journalists, authorities have so far largely failed to investigate most of the nearly 60 murders of journalists since 1992.
Such a bleak record has motivated journalists and rights campaigners to protest the bill over the past year. Their criticism has forced the government to review earlier versions, but critics say the bill still needs to go a long way to meet their expectations of fairness and balancing the need for fighting crime and terrorism without violating fundamental rights and legal protections.
Lawmakers from the governing Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Party, however, are adamant the bill respects modern human rights standards.
“We included all the necessary amendments, and its current form is now within the human rights limits,” Tahir Iqbal, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, recently told VOA. “We have outlined specific punishments for hate speech, [possession] of hate material, and the use of the Internet] for committing fraud. It really is comprehensive.”
During the next few weeks, the PECB will be debated in the Senate, where liberal opposition political parties still retain a majority.
This perhaps is the only silver lining for activists opposing its current harsh measures.