New media law in Pakistan sparks fiery debate

Amendment ‘banning freedom of expression is aimed solely at curbing anti-government criticism and opposition voices,’ journalists’ association head says.

A view of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 20, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/CAREN FIROUZ)
A view of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 20, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/CAREN FIROUZ)

Pakistan has approved a radical change to its statute book, claiming it is intended to curb “fake news” by regulating posts on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

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President Arif Alvi signed an ordinance, approved by the cabinet, to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act to allow citizens to file complaints against a “defamatory” social media post.

Under the ordinance, online defamation has been made a nonbailable, cognizable offense and the jail term for defamation has been increased from three years to five years.

PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan. Last month, a Pakistani minister said the 2019 Pulwama terrorist attack was a ‘success of the whole nation.’  (credit: REUTERS)PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan. Last month, a Pakistani minister said the 2019 Pulwama terrorist attack was a ‘success of the whole nation.’ (credit: REUTERS)

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists filed a petition in Islamabad High Court on Tuesday, challenging the amendment. The court was to hear the petition on Wednesday.

Federal Law Minister Mohammad Farogh Naseem briefed reporters in Islamabad on Sunday, saying “the amendments in the Electronic Crimes Act have been made under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes’ (Amended) Ordinance, 2022.

“Under the ordinance, the definition of a ‘person’ has been widened to include any company, association, institution, organization, authority, or any other. Moreover, anyone found guilty of disgracing a person’s identity and dignity will now be sentenced to five years instead of three years,” Naseem added.

“The ordinance also states that the complainant shall be an aggrieved person, his lawful representative, or his guardian where such person is a minor or a member of the public in respect of a public figure or a holder of public office,” he continued.

“The latest ordinance is only aimed at preventing the spread of fake news by making it a criminal offense as per the state‘s constitution to foil the intentions of the country’s enemies,” he said.

During the press briefing, Naseem cited the examples of Gulzar Ahmed, former chief justice ofPakistan, saying false news containing ill-mannered language was disseminated against him[regarding his personal life].

“In recent days some fake news was flashed on social media that the first lady [Bushra BibiKhan, the wife of Prime Minister Imran Khan] had left home. Some people, who are not in factjournalists, are claiming to be journalists,” the minister added.

Naseem emphasized that “the latest ordinance is not aimed at targeting working journalists who are sincere in their profession and not involved in dissemination of fake news.” Mohammad Nawaz Raza, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, told The Media Line, “This is a nerve-wracking situation for which the entire incompetent ruling clique is responsible.”

“In this modern age of social media, instead of reforming the existing laws to administer the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, unfortunately, these laws are being amended to ensure that nobody can talk or identify the corruption and incompetence of ministers,” he said. “Every institution should work within its limits, and whenever the institutions cross their limits, they will be criticized.

“Undoubtedly, the new law banning freedom of expression is a cruel step aimed solely atcurbing anti-government criticism and opposition voices that violate basic human rights,” Raza said.

Nayyar Hussein Bukhari, former chairman of the Senate and a senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, told The Media Line that the “Imran Khan-led regime is incompetent, and it does not want anyone to speak. Khan is convinced that his government’s days are numbered. The restrictions imposed on freedom of the press are unprecedented.”

Mian Javed Latif, a National Assembly lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), told The Media Line that “in a society where criticism ceases, reform ends. The dictatorial ordinance contradicted the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”

Siddique Ul Farooq, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) former spokesperson and a senior party leader, told The Media Line, “Basic human rights are the hallmark of every civilized and democratic society.

“Democratic-minded governments, institutions, and political parties cannot even think of violating basic human rights,” he said.

“Unfortunately, Prime Minister Imran Khan considers himself as a superhuman being; if Khan violates the law by staying in opposition, then it is fine, and if he breaks the law by coming to power then it is still fine,” Farooq continued.

“The performance of the Khan-led government is below zero. For the first time in the history of the country, the people are being burdened by such inflation,” he said.

“Every state institution, including governance, economy, and foreign policy, has been ruined, so to avoid criticism, embarrassment, and public accountability such amendments in the laws have been introduced,” Farooq said.

“Personal freedom is being crucified to cover up one’s failures; these amendments to the law are a reflection of authoritarian behavior,” he added.

“These amendments are against the constitutional right of freedom of expression as provided under Article 19 of the state’s constitution,” Farooq said. “We reject it, and the entire opposition will voice the combined strategy against it inside and outside the parliament.”

Human rights organizations strongly criticized the new law.

Iqbal Khattak, executive director of the Islamabad-based Freedom Network, told The MediaLine, “The people have a fundamental right to criticize and question the performance of their elected legislatures and hold them accountable, but with the new law, the government has taken away this basic right of the people.

“The amendment comes at a time when the country is set to hold general elections next year,” he continued. “The common man no longer has access to television, he cannot write in the newspaper, so social media is the only medium that a common man has access to where he can express his feelings and hardships.

“The amended legislation will deprive ordinary citizens of Pakistan of their basic right to freedom of expression,” he said.

Replying to a question, he said, “The government’s claim that it wants to stop the spread offake news through this legislation is completely false,” Khattak said. “If the government reallywants to stop fake news, then it has to put an end to the ministries of information at thefederal and provincial levels which have become the ‘fake news universities.’”The Joint Action Committee (JAC) of media stakeholders walked out of a meeting with theMinistry of Information in Islamabad on Monday, in protest against the government policy.The JAC is composed of representatives of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, the Council ofPakistan Newspaper Editors, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the PakistanBroadcasters Association, and the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors.The committee announced that all discussions with the government are being suspended untilthe “draconian amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act are reversed.”“There are several instances where the Ministry of Information was involved in distortingfreedom of speech and restricting journalists’ right to report,” the JAC said in a statement. “The meeting with the Ministry of Information was a drama, ordinances are being passed againstfreedom of expression, and the impression was given that the media community is being consulted [about the issue].”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Khan on Monday defended the newly amended ordinance. During a meeting with the senior party leaders, Khan said “the ordinance would discourage people from ruining others’ respect and dignity.

“Such laws were intentionally not made in the past, which led to ruining the morality of our youth,” the prime minister added.

In 2021, Pakistan dropped to 145 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking published by Reporters Without Borders, a France-based international nongovernmental organization dedicated to safeguarding the right to freedom of information.