The Last Battle: Pakistan Electronic Cybercrimes Bill

This blog’s been updated and published at IBTimes here. Read the original post, before the bill was passed, below.

Events in Pakistan have been traumatic to say the least: the kidnapping of Lahori children and the bomb blast in Quetta that wiped out its entire senior lawyer cadre. Living in Pakistan means getting your heart broken again and again. We have accepted this even as we fight against it every day.

But there’s another battle that’s in its last hours: the fight to save Pakistani Internet users from the draconian Pakistan Electronic Cybercrime Bill.  If it passes, then Pakistanis will have lost most of their digital rights to freedom of expression, being able to criticize the government, and do business with the rest of the world over the Internet. The government under the leadership of IT Minister Anousha Rehman insists that this bill will protect individuals from harassment and cut down on cybercrime and terrorism.

But underneath these good intentions is the aim to cut down on dissent by penalizing bloggers, political opposition, writers and ordinary Internet users for vague crimes like “offending Islam” and “promoting vulgarity.” Huge fines and jail time can be given for the most arbitrary of reasons. The basic tenet of freedom of speech means that you can speak openly (as long as you are not promoting violence) and you will not face the government’s censure for it. This bill robs every single Pakistani citizen of that right. Even forwarding by email an op-ed published in a newspaper that critiques the government’s performance can get anyone fined and jailed.

For a year, digital rights defenders like the Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi, as well as civil society experts and stakeholders have been trying to get the bill amended from its current oppressive form. They have been thwarted at every turn.  Pakistani senators Sherry Rehman and Aitzaz Ahsan attempted to make important amendments to the bill, adding 55 amendments, but this still didn’t dilute the bill’s dangerous powers.

In a move that can only be classified as the darkest of irony, digital rights activist Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi won a Youth Parliamentarian certificate in recognition of her “services.” According to Aziz, she wanted to reject the award, but then decided to accept it and use her one minute of speaking time to address the National Assembly about the bill. Her statement is in the image below. aziz

The bill was tabled in the National Assembly yesterday, and both the PPP and the PTI have promised they will oppose it. Nafisa Shah of the PPP says, “Spoke against the draconian cyber crime law today in the NA. Called it government’s oppressive instrument of surveillance of youth& civil society.” Dr. Arif Alvi of PTI wrote, “PTI will be opposing Cyber Crime Bill – despite our efforts to make it better, we have decided not to accept it in its present form.”

No doubt the ruling PML-N will see this as attempts by the opposition to gain political mileage, as they have already dubbed civil society protestors “propagandists” and “agents.” They will never realize that Pakistanis who are working to oppose this bill and to make it fair and equitable are actually more patriotic than those who support it. Only by criticism and critique can we as a country improve ourselves. Only by the input of civil society can a government be held accountable and responsible for its performance and transparency. Enacting the PECB will take away that power from the citizens of Pakistan.

I recently spoke on social media and journalism at a workshop for working journalists. Sixty percent of them had not heard of the PECB. The majority of civil society has no idea what’s being done to them in the name of the PECB. Is this the Pakistan we want to live in? We only have a few precious hours left to say no.

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