The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a global, multistakeholder organization focused on freedom of expression and privacy in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, expresses deep concern about Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) Amendment of February 18, 2022 (“the Amendments”).
GNI has been following relevant legal and regulatory developments in Pakistan for several years. In January 2020, the government published the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguard) Rules 2020 (“the Rules”). Shortly thereafter, GNI issued a statement expressing concerns about the lack of public consultation, the broad scope of the Rules, and aspects that created significant risks to privacy and freedom of expression. In July of the same year, GNI held a multistakeholder roundtable discussion with public officials and non-government stakeholders to discuss Pakistan’s specific efforts to regulate digital content and services, including the Rules. These discussions fed into GNI’s Content Regulation and Human Rights policy brief, which analyzed two dozen content regulation efforts in countries around the world and concluded with a range of proactive recommendations. Informed by these recommendations, GNI again responded to the Rules after an updated version was notified at the end of 2020, with little advance notice to stakeholders.
Unfortunately, this most recent effort by the government of Pakistan to regulate digital content, through the Amendments continues previous trends of bypassing the democratic process and creating broad and unchecked powers that are likely to lead to unnecessary and unjustified censorship. By issuing a presidential ordinance as an emergency law, without any public consultation or parliamentary debate, the government has once again failed to obtain sufficient stakeholder or parliamentary input. The use of such an ordinance should be limited only to times of emergency, and yet no existing emergency has been cited to justify this approach. As we note in the policy brief, careful and public deliberation can help ensure that laws are appropriate to achieve their protective function, are the least intrusive instrument amongst those which might achieve their protective function, and are proportionate to the interest to be protected, in line with the human rights principle of necessity.
We share concerns expressed by human rights experts about the potential for the newfound authorities to be used to restrict speech that discusses or is critical of the State and State actors. The amendment of section 2 of PECA changes the definition of a “person” to include “any company, association, or body of persons, whether incorporated or not, institution, organization, authority or any other body established by the Government under any law or otherwise.” To align with this new definition of a “person,” the ordinance amends the already broad provisions that protect against “offenses of the dignity of a natural person” under Section 20 of PECA, removing the word “natural.” Furthermore, the ordinance extends the definition of an “aggrieved person” who can file a complaint under PECA to also include “a member of the public in respect of a public figure or a holder of public office.” Taken in sum, these changes could allow any government body, institution, or actor to invoke PECA to bring criminal charges in response to any speech deemed defamatory against the government.
These enhanced authorities are also paired with increased penalties for violators of PECA. Further amendments to Section 20 increase the punishment for PECA violations from 3 to 5 years imprisonment, and grant additional powers to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA). Together with the amendment of section 44A, which mandates that trials be concluded “expeditiously,” while also putting a limit of six months to finish court cases related to PECA, these changes are likely to create significant chilling effects on those who would consider authoring legitimate criticism of State entities and their actions.
These and other changes in the Amendments lead to significant concerns about the potential impacts on freedom of opinion and expression in Pakistan and add to the concerns GNI has previously expressed about the increased pressures on ICT companies. We call for the repeal of the Amendments, and we call on the government to undergo broader, more transparent public consultation in advance of any future content regulation efforts.