PAKISTAN: Government determined to curb freedom of speech

The Pakistani National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information Technology approved the Cyber Crimes Bill 2015 on September 17 for a second time, after making some cosmetic changes to clauses that curb free speech. Legislators from the ruling party are determined to pass the Bill; the Chairman of the Standing Committee is the son in-law of the Prime Minister.

Earlier, on 16 April 2015, the Committee approved the draft of the Bill, but was forced to reconsider its decision following backlash from digital rights activist and experts. This time the Committee has cleared the controversial Bill, amidst complaints from many members that their opinions and reservations have been ignored. The Bill, if approved by the National Assembly, has provisions that can be used to restrict speech and liberties online.
The AHRC has published a criticism of the draft Bill in a six-part series (available here). 

Many Members of National Assembly (MNA), such as Pakistan People’s Party Member Shazia Marri, severely criticized the move; Ms. Marri expressed her reservations and vowed to oppose the legislation if her recommendations were not incorporated. “This Cyber Crime bill looks to curb freedom of speech,” she said, “look at section 34 of this bill, it gives unfettered power to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) — we will oppose this legislation on the assembly floor if our recommendations not incorporated.”

The State appears hell-bent to pass the draconian Bill into law. The latest copy of the Bill wasn’t even circulated amongst Committee Members. The surreptitious manner adopted to expedite the passage of Bill to the National Assembly by limiting access of experts also casts doubt into the intentions of the state. Members of the civil society, experts from NGOs, media, internet service providers, and other stake holders who were asked to give their inputs were never heard; many have complained that the recommendations made by them have not been considered by the Committee. Only a select few were allowed into the solitary public hearing, though the Committee claims that 500 people provided their input during the public hearing at Parliament House.

Terms such as obscene or immoral and threat to the State have been deliberately left open ended and subject to judicial interpretation to widen the tentacles of the draconian provisions of the proposed law. The FIA and PTA have been given unbridled power in the name of national interest. In a true democracy, if it is absolutely necessary to curb any fundamental right, the enactment of such laws are always preceded by extensive debate in the respective legislative assembly and all stake holders are required to give their input and recommendations given by them are incorporated after due consideration. However, the government wants to hasten this law in question to curb free speech and expression.

The Pakistan State is increasingly becoming a fascist state, where freedom of speech is forcibly curbed to decrease threat to those in power. Clamping down on the Internet is the final frontier, as the Internet the only tool available to the people of Pakistan to air their views, and it is now being taken away from them.

This Bill turning into law will be a continuation of the enactment of draconian laws to oppress the masses into submission. The façade of a dummy democracy is being maintained by the State to hide its fascism. Since the Nawaz Sharif government has come into power, the State appears to be turning against its own people. The law enforcement and intelligence agencies are being given complete impunity to maintain what they perceive as order in the country.

However, the situation is worsening. It is time the State rethinks its public policies and enacts people friendly laws so as not to alienate the Pakistani people.

The government has no business criminalizing opinions and political and personal expression.
This Bill must be opposed as it violates fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, by legitimizing subjective judgments and unwarranted and unjustifiable governmental overreach.