Pakistani authorities introduced new legislation on February 20 that they say will help clamp down on "fake news" on social media, in a move that free-media activists and the opposition are calling dangerous overreach.
The presidential ordinance, called the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance 2022, increases jail terms for defamation of people or institutions from three to five years and limits access to bail for alleged offenders.
Put forward by President Arif Alvi after federal cabinet approval, it is widely seen as bolstering protection from possible criticism for institutions, including the country's powerful military establishment.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) called the incoming law "undemocratic."
“It will also inevitably be used to clamp down on dissenters and critics of the government and state institutions,” the HRCP said.
Law Minister Faroogh Naseem announced the move as a much needed amendment of laws on cybercrime and said no one would be exempt from the effort to root out "fake news."
"Media is free to criticize, but there should be no fake news," he added.
Spreading "fake news" will be "a nonbailable offense with up to six months' imprisonment," Naseem said in Karachi.
The opposition has called the use of a presidential ordinance to change cybercrime laws "draconian."
A senator for the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, said the amendment "is not about protecting the vulnerable from cyberpredations -- quite the opposite."
An amendment last year allowed authorities greater access to users' data, increasing concern in a country that critics complain has seen higher official restriction of expression since Prime Minister Imran Khan's government took over after 2018 elections.