A report by the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative released last month has found – unsurprisingly – that the infamous Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) has been misused to target journalists and suppress free speech. According to the report, while the law was initially justified as a means of confronting online hate speech and misinformation, the significant powers it granted authorities to criminalize speech has led to it being used to prosecute journalists and others engaged in legitimate criticism of state institutions and officials. A report by Freedom Network Report in 2021 found that over the prior two years 23 journalists had been targeted under the act. One of the most contentious parts of the act is Section 20, which criminalizes defamation and makes it punishable by up to three years in prison, despite the fact that Pakistan already had defamation laws in place as well as the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s conclusion that imprisonment is not an appropriate penalty for defamation. This section of Peca is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court while a lower court has deemed parts of the section to be unconstitutional, asking the government to investigate its misuse.
That successive governments have not only stood by and watched the weaponization of this law against journalists and others but have even sought to strengthen speaks volumes of how little our major political parties care for democratic principles and the rights of the people. There are arguably few blows more crippling to a democratic culture than those elected to protect and further the rights of the people actively working to negate them. Even when such laws are not enforced, they can have a chilling effect on free speech by encouraging individuals and media to self-censor. It is not as though journalists, media, activists and civil society did not see what Peca would become back in 2016, when it was passed by the PML-N government. The manner in which this was done is quite fitting given how the law is being used now, with parliamentary debate and discussion being bypassed and the law being enforced unilaterally as an ordinance. To make matters worse, the previous government decided to amend Peca in order to make it more effective against ‘fake news’ in July.
While online hate speech, misinformation and fake news are genuine problems, these should not become an excuse for the government to crack down on legitimate expression. In fact, it is laws that ought to be protecting people from government overreach and not shielding the government from its own people. Our leaders appear to be having a hard time grasping this basic yet essential concept.