The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act or Peca has been under discussion since it was passed by the previous PML-N government in 2016. One of its clauses has now come under debate in the Meesha Shafi case that a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan is hearing. This pertains to the criminal proceedings against her in a defamation suit filed by Ali Zafar under Section 20 of Peca. Though civil society organizations and media bodies have been opposing Peca in its entirety, this criminal defamation section has come to be seen as the most harmful for freedom of expression in the country. Now Justice Qazi Faez Isa is looking at the constitutional position of two contradictory decisions – one by the Islamabad High Court (IHC) and the other by the Lahore High Court (LHC). Three months back, the LHC had ruled that Section 20 of Peca was not in violation of Article 19 of the constitution of Pakistan. Then two months ago, the IHC had – in a major win for advocates of free speech – scrapped the part of the Section 20 of Peca that deals with damage to reputation. The IHC was of the view that it was unconstitutional; the court had also scrapped the Peca Amendment Ordinance, passed by the PTI government and seen as a direct attack on free speech since it had unwisely enhanced the scope of defamation and made it a cognizable offence without provision of bail.
The Supreme Court is now looking into more clarity on the issue as this law is not commonly found in other functioning democracies, and is more in keeping with authoritarian regimes that have repressive tendencies. Irrespective of the current case in the SC, there has been a wide-ranging impact of this controversial law in Pakistan. Dozens of journalists have found themselves on the receiving end as the previous government charged them under Section 20 of Peca, effectively stifling dissent and curbing one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. It would be unfair to just blame the previous government though since the original law was brought in by the PML-N government – only to be made even worse by the PTI’s amendment. The Meesha Shafi case is a pertinent example of how this law can be used to force women to keep silent. In a country where misogyny and patriarchal attitudes are still deep-rooted, women need protection rather than persecution while recalling their harassment. The Peca law as a whole and Section 20 in particular goes against the grain of freedom of expression. There are defamation laws already in place in the country, and there is no need to make it a crime that deprives the accused of a bail from a court of law. There are plenty of civil laws that a case may invoke. There is also a need to train FIA officers who are prompt in registering cases of defamation that hardly have any merit and only serve as an intimidating tactic against victims or dissenters. A law that could have tackled true crime – which is a real problem on the internet – ended up criminalizing unpopular speech. There is hope Peca will be reviewed more thoroughly both by the courts and by this coalition government that has claimed it has no desire to indulge in online censorship.
Source: The News