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PPF alarmed by PML-N led governments’ push to regulate free expression in digital spaces; wary of misuse to target media professionals

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PPF alarmed by PML-N led governments’ push to regulate free expression in digital spaces; wary of misuse to target media professionals

In the past few weeks, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-led government at the helm of the federal government and in the Punjab province has demonstrated its lack of regard for the need to protect free expression online, presenting and approving different bills that increase the regulation of free speech online. Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) is concerned by this regulation and legislation at the federal and provincial levels. The lack of clarity, transparency, and consultation with stakeholders and groups likely to be impacted is alarming. It raises concerns about the potential misuse to target critical voices, journalists, and media professionals under the guise of cyber security and defamation.

The government must also explain why multiple regulatory and oversight bodies for the digital sphere are required. At a time when digital spaces are increasingly relevant for discourse and expression, the push for monitoring, regulation, and clamping down on content shared online is counterproductive. 

The unilateral approval and passage of such legislation and regulatory bodies give the impression that the input of stakeholders is not welcome or worthy of consideration. It also raises questions about how these laws will function. PPF urges the government to hold meaningful consultations with relevant stakeholders before making any amendments or passing legislation.

PPF urges the government to provide clarity on the functioning of, two new bodies to regulate content online in Pakistan — the National Cyber Crime Investigation Agency and the Digital Rights Protection Authority — that have been introduced or approved. 

Additionally, we urge the government to maintain transparency in the functioning of the new regulatory bodies and the use of the defamation law in Punjab. 


Digital Rights Protection Authority

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif approved a draft to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, under which the Digital Rights Protection Authority would be set up, The News reported on May 9. The bill will be presented before the parliament after the federal cabinet’s approval without meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders.

According to The News, the digital protection authority will have a broad scope of responsibilities, including advice to the government on digital rights, enforcing regulations, investigating violations of the PECA law on social media, taking action against those who are in violation, “demand information” for individuals and others.

The broad scope of the protection authority and the need to further amend the already draconian PECA, 2016 law that has been used to target media professionals is concerning. PPF urges the government to provide clarity on the need for multiple regulatory bodies for the digital sphere and emphasizes the need to ensure that these bodies are not used to clamp down on the right to free expression as enshrined in the Constitution.

Additionally, we urge for transparency in data handling by the NCCIA and the digital rights protection authority once established. Ensuring that data protection laws are respected and adequate safeguards are in place is essential to maintaining trust in digital communications.


Punjab defamation law

On May 13, the Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 was presented at the provincial Punjab Assembly without stakeholder consultations. The PML-N government is also at the helm of the province. 

According to The Express Tribune, under the law, fines can be imposed and social media accounts can be blocked of those found to be spreading defamatory content.

The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) has rejected the bill and termed it a prohibition on freedom of the press and free expression.

Defamation laws globally have, in some instances, been used to stifle free expression. Similar to policing content online for being propaganda, defamation can be subject to interpretation and PPF is wary of misuse of the law to target media professionals found to be critical.


National Cyber Crime Investigation Agency

Per a notification issued by the Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunication, dated April 24, the federal government has announced the formation of a new cybercrime agency — the NCCIA — set to replace the functions of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Cybercrime Wing without civil society consultation.

According to the notification, the personnel, cases, inquiries, investigations, assets, liabilities, rights, obligations, privileges and matters of the “defunct cyber crime wing of the FIA” would be transferred to the NCCIA. 

According to Dawn, Information Minister Attaullah Tarar had said that a separate authority was being formed to “safeguard the digital rights of people” and, to “counter propaganda and rumors on social media” as well as to end harassment online.  

Vague terms such as propaganda and rumors are open to interpretation, PPF is cautious about the state determining what propaganda and rumors are so that such labels are not misused to censor and target the media. The former iteration of the NCCIA, FIA Cybercrime Wing, has displayed a targeting of the media under the guise of cybersecurity, which has involved issuing notices and arrests of media professionals for content shared online or on social media platforms.