Cybercrime bill under scrutiny
The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2015 tabled in May 2015, commonly known as the Cybercrime Bill, was aimed at keeping check on the cyber domains in Pakistan. It is still under discussion with the civil society feeling that the bill is akin to an Electronic Martial Law.
Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN), Blue Veins, Tribal NGOs Consortium (TNC), Digital Rights Foundation, Punjab Union of Journalists, Rawadari Teherek and AAS Foundation organized a session for journalists to brainstorm negative and positive points of the Cyber Crime Bill.
The Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance (PECO) 2007 was presented in the National Assembly under article 89(2) of the Constitution. Re-defined in 2008, 2009 and 2014, the current draft of the Bill was sent to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on IT and Telecom in May 2015. The IT Ministry made amendments to impose more control over the Internet whereby users will be fined for sharing information that the government deems inappropriate, vulgar or against Islam.
Journalists and digital activists participated in the discussion and expressed their fears about the bill. They welcomed the government’s attempt to prevent cybercrime, terrorism and electronic fraud but expressed their concern on the vague language of the bill, which currently has the potential to pose a serious threat to fundamental rights and freedoms which could pose a threat to journalists in Pakistan and promote criminalization of dissent. The journalists feared that the control of cyber space by government may lead to numerous violations of basic rights including access to information, privacy rights and freedom of speech which is the essence of journalism.
Qamar Naseem a civil society activist from KP spoke to The Nation and said, “The bill was not shown to the opposition parties. Apart from that people are not aware of it. They think this is to put a halt to pornographic content on the internet, get hold of people speaking against Islam or those blackmailing girls on the internet. But they are unaware that posting anything that goes against the government or its institutions is chargeable as a crime.”
He further added: “People today are connected through the cyber world. Such restrictions will mean people will stop using the internet and also stop raising their voice due to fear. This bill will not only impact the journalists but the citizens as well. We will support the bill if the objectionable clauses are amended to actually aim at penalizing the militants and criminal activities, for which we gave our recommendations which were rejected by the government.”
Mr.Waseem President of Punjab Union of Journalists said, “The process by which the Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill has reached the National Assembly is deeply concerning. Forcing the bill through the committee without consensus coupled with on-going criticisms by members of the committee shows that this bill is not ready to be considered to be passed into law.”
Nightat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation said, “The Government of Pakistan must introduce stringent personal data protection law to defend the rights of internet users from harassment and abuse of surveillance powers. The government must also establish a privacy commission for surveillance and privacy oversight, to ensure that laws and provisions protecting citizens are strictly adhered to.”
Samson Salamat of Rawadari Tehreek said, “The Government must ensure the privacy rights of its citizens. Many coherent strategies are missing from the bill and the technical language is vague and non-objective, making redefining the bill important to make it acceptable.”
A digital activist raised her concerns on the bill, “National Action Plan was introduced last year, but the Government has not blocked hate or extremist content online as yet. How can a bill that is totally against our privacy and security be passed? If videos in support of Mumtaz Qadri or Maulana Abdul Aziz can be shared online how can they punish a person for uploading material against the government or national interest?”