Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, first proposed by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology last April in an effort to update its cybercrime legislation, has been widely criticized for being so overly vague that it could criminalize dissent as well as ordinary communications. Qamar Naseem, Program Coordinator for Blue Veins, was quoted in The Express Tribune stating the proposed bill contravenes Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Pakistan Ratified in June 2010: “Since this bill proposes strict punishments, it should not be moved in haste as it will negatively impact internet users, social media and online activism.”
Despite government overtures to seek feedback from the public, as well as the formation of a sub-committee to study the bill, many stakeholders including industry leaders, civil society organizations, activists and even members of the opposition in the Senate have been left out of the process. Bolo Bhi (‘Speak up’ in Urdu), an advocacy, policy and research NGO has been on the forefront of the campaign to revise the bill. In cooperation with 10 other organizations, they formed the Joint Action Committee (JAC) which submitted a legal redraft of the bill for consideration on August 12th to the NA Standing Committee on Information Technology & Telecommunications. Subsequently, the media and the JAC were barred from closed-door meetings about the redrafting of the bill. In a recent blog post, “JAC Calls Upon Opposition Parties & Senate to Amend PECB15,” Bolo Bhi wrote:
Time and again rights and industry groups have been held responsible for creating a noise but not providing any concrete suggestions. We went to the extent of furnishing a legal redraft that took into consideration other points of view. We went to great lengths to try and understand other perspectives and even accommodated views contrary to ours in the legal redraft. However, since this exclusionary attitude prevails, all such efforts have clearly been wasted. We move back to square one, where more than what has been put down in the legal redraft must be demanded. We realize fully that if this bill is to be modified at all in the interest of the people of Pakistan, differentiate between innocent people and criminals, and drafted in keeping with Constitutional protections guaranteed to citizens, this now rests in the hands of opposition parties and the Senate. We need security and rights – both together. Not one over the other.
Criticism of the bill has been organized, collaborative, industry lead and even creative (see Bolo Bhi’s poster campaign) to lay the foundation for a constructive public debate. Most of the advocacy and industry groups respect the need for the new legislation but want to ensure it protects human rights and conforms with international standards and are therefore simply asking for modifications to specific sections of the draft Act. It is time for the government to follow through on its commitment to a multi-stakeholder negotiated bill that truly represents the rights and protections necessary for the citizens of Pakistan.