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Pakistan moves to stifle social media dissent

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
February 24, 2022

Pakistan's new social media-related cybercrime ordinance has drawn ire from civil society activists who say the "draconian" legislation is likely to be used against government critics.

A woman is looking at social networking sites on her iPhone
The ordinance allows the government to arrest social media activists and jail them up to five yearsImage: Mana Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's government recently passed a cybercrime ordinance that prescribes a punishment up to five years in jail for posting "fake news" about government officials, the military and judiciary on social media.

Human rights groups have said the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance 2022 is merely a tool to curb freedom of expression in the South Asian country.

Khan's Cabinet adopted the ordinance swiftly after President Arif Alvi signed it over the weekend. The legislation, however, needs to be passed by the country's parliament within 90 days.

Khan's government has come under heavy criticism locally and internationally for curbing free speech in Pakistan.

A 2021 Reporters Without Borders report lists Khan as one of the "press freedom predators" in the world.

A move against 'fake news'?

Opposition parties have criticized the ordinance, saying the people arrested under the law will not have the right to file a bail application during the trial.

"This ordinance is a violation of fundamental rights. It curbs media freedom," Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former prime minister and member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group) party, told DW.

But Law and Justice Minister Farogh Naseem defends the legislation as an effective way to stop "fake news" and "hate speech" on electronic and social media.

"The government believes in the freedom of expression, but it also wants to end the spread of fake news," Naseem told reporters.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent rights organization, termed the legislation "undemocratic" and expressed concern that the law will be used to target critics of the government and state institutions.

"The government should be accountable to the citizens, and the ordinance should be rolled back immediately," it said in a statement.

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Stifling political dissent

Critics say it is easier for Khan's populist government to control mainstream media through existing laws, but social media has always been a tough ground for the authorities.

With the new legislation, the government can now clamp down on social media activists as well.

"The law is introduced to target only political opponents and journalists who speak against the government. Its only purpose is to control political dissent. The nonbailable clause and arrest before investigations are draconian in nature," Abbasi asserted.

Farieha Aziz, co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, a nongovernmental organization advocating for the rights of internet users, told DW that the government has already started taking actions against journalists and activists under the new ordinance.

"All these measures will lead to self-censorship," Aziz said.

Nighat Dad, a digital rights lawyer and human rights activist, told DW that the "space for dissent has shrunk" in Pakistan during Khan's tenure.

"These kinds of laws will increase censorship, primarily widespread self-censorship, and they would be misused against anyone accused of spreading 'fake news' and 'defamations,'" Dad said.

Legal challenge

The ordinance has been challenged by multiple stakeholders, including opposition parties and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, in Islamabad and Lahore high courts.

The Islamabad High Court has temporarily stopped the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from making arrests under the law.

"The ordinance needs to be scrapped lest it will continue to be misused against political opponents and journalists," former Prime Minister Abbasi said.

Activist Aziz hopes that the judiciary will strike down the ordinance, or that the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, will set it aside.

"The onus is on the judiciary and lawmakers to do the right thing. Rights groups and press freedom groups are trying to raise awareness on the issue," Aziz said.

Osama Malik, a legal expert in Islamabad, told DW that such laws are not in "consonance with principles of free speech in modern democracies."

"The attorney general for Pakistan has admitted that the law, after new amendments, is draconian, and its application will have to be regulated," Malik said.

Khan government 'worst for media in Pakistan's history'

Edited by: Shamil Shams