The lawmakers in Senate on Wednesday called for legislation under Article 19 to ensure that Cyber Crime Act is not stifled under the pretext of national security and protecting honour of the armed forces. The opposition senators expressed concern over the misuse of the act as a political tool to hit social media and questioned why the FIA report on the cases and arrests made under the act was not presented in the house despite passage of over six months, though there is a commitment from the government in this regard.
One senator called the act a double-edged sword and called for steps to ensure its just application. The order of Ministry of Interior was under fire, which was issued not long ago, issuing warning to social media users in the name of national security and national interests. However, senators insisted there should be no insult of religions, sects, nations, communities, language and culture on social media.
Lawmakers wanted to know why the act was not being applied to check the blatant misuse of the social media by the banned outfits, which have hundreds of web pages and also spread their messages of hate and terror through Facebook and other media tools.
Taking part in the debate on a motion on the threat to freedom of expression by misuse of the Electronic Crimes Act and the impunity with which crimes were continuously being committed against journalists and media persons, PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar demanded that the FIA report on the arrests made under the Cyber Crime Act be placed in the Parliament as required by the act.
Babar also called for legislation under Article 19 of the Constitution so that freedom of expression is not unduly stifled behind vague references to national security and protecting the honour of armed forces. "Cases against social media activists have increased after a blanket order issued recently by the Interior Ministry. About 1,000 cases have reportedly been registered in a short span of time. The Parliament must know about the number of cases, charges and the courts where the accused are tried," he emphasised.
He pointed out that a young journalist Zafarullah Achakzai was arrested last month in Quetta by FIA for his Facebook posts, asking journalists whether they knew that FC was taking 10 per cent commission from owners of coalmines and for allegedly uploading video of a lawmaker involved in a hit-and-run case of traffic warden in Quetta. "The FC should have come out clean with facts about alleged commission," he noted.
Freedom of expression, he claimed, is under threat from non-state actors in the name of faith. It is now increasingly threatened by the state also in name of 'national security.' He said that national security mantra is being overplayed to the detriment of transparency, accountability and freedom of expression. He noted when questions were asked recently about the allotment of 90 acres of land to a recently retired general, the people were warned against 'maligning the army' and creating tensions between state institutions.
"Seeking freedom from all kinds of comments and criticism will neither benefit the armed forces, nor judiciary and any other public institution. Total freedom from public comments will only damage our national institutions," he cautioned.
He said that Article 19 of the Constitution and ICCPR guarantee freedom of expression and that any limitations should be reasonable and only under a law. Babar added offering alternate security narratives or pointing out wrongdoings in the institutions of sacred cows is neither undermining security nor is defaming the military. It should be seen as strengthening national security.
Senator Shibli Faraz of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) said that the subject is quite new for the investigating agencies like FIA, for which the parliamentary oversight is a must to prevent its misuse.
"It's a very dangerous law, which can be misused, abused, as nobody is clear about the law. Anusha emotionally trapped us to pass the bill, but I would still press that there should be a parliamentary oversight in order to stop its misuse," he maintained. Opposition Leader in Senate, Aitzaz Ahsan said that the law is like a 'double-edged sword which cuts both ways,' and it will have disastrous effect if the Parliament does not play its role of monitoring it.
He also criticized the government for the controversial law, on which the PPP had also voted, adding such laws can only turn a country into security state, and it is in no a step forward towards a welfare state. "We need to learn and teach our children about the cyberspace, as it is only tool through which we can compete with the modern day world. Any attempt to ban internet will definitely send us back to the Stone Age," he added.
Senator Azam Swati of PTI said that social media is extremely vibrant but without evidence, mudslinging is carried out against many persons, therefore, the government must invite stakeholders to see how its use can be made effective. He called for accountability of judges, generals and media power houses, adding it should not be confined to lawmakers only. Senator Usman Khan Kakar of PkMAP said that the 'drama' to ban the social media must come to an end, saying that the print and electronic media are in the control of state institutions.
"I do agree that there should be some check, as there are four fake IDs pertaining to me on social media and when I approached the concerned quarters, I was asked these will be eliminated," he said. He further said that a fake ID led to martyrdom of Mashal Khan. Winding up the debate on the motion, State Minister for Interior Baleeghur Rehman said that the government has no ulterior motive behind the law, as it is purely meant to discourage the elements which are misusing the cyberspace.
He said that after the law came into force, the number of complaints is increasing, adding the number of complaints was 1,782 in 2014, 4,361 in 2015, 9,075 in 2016, while it has gone further up in 2017. Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani said that under the law, the government is bound to present a half yearly report to the Parliament, but not a single report has been presented to the house since passage of the law. He directed the Ministry of Interior to present the report in the both the houses of the Parliament within one month.
The minister said that the reports will be compiled within a week and then they will be presented in both the houses. Anusha Rehman Khan, State Minister for Information Technology, also turned up in the house and said that Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is the implementing body, and the Parliament can summon it anytime if it deems it necessary.
According to Anusha, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is only allowed to manage the contents. She also dispelled the impression that the government wants to shut the internet or social media through the law, saying there is no truth in it.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2017