A man browses the internet at a cafe in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in this September 18, 2013 file photo. (Reuters/Faisal Mahmood)
A man browses the internet at a cafe in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in this September 18, 2013 file photo. (Reuters/Faisal Mahmood)

Pakistani law could enable sweeping internet censorship

Bangkok, August 26, 2016 – Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain should veto a bill that could allow for sweeping censorship of the internet and the prosecution of journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Pakistan’s National Assembly approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 last week and sent it to Hussain to sign into law, according to press reports.

Ambiguous language in the bill, which the Pakistani Senate approved in July and the National Assembly approved on August 11, would give state regulators sweeping powers to censor the internet, including material posted to social media platforms, in the name of upholding stability, security, and “the glory of Islam,” news reports said. Penalties under the law include three years in prison and fines for “spoofing,” defined as creating a website or disseminating information online using a “counterfeit” identity with “dishonest” intent, a provision that could apply to satirical websites. Judges could also sentence those found guilty of publishing material deemed to “harm the reputation” of someone, reports said.

Section 34 of the bill would give the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority broad discretion to order the removal or censorship of information published online “in the interest of the glory of Islam, the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan, or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement of an offense.” The law also allows for maximum seven year prison penalties for ill-defined “glorification” of crimes related to terrorism or their alleged perpetrators.

“Pakistan’s cyber-security law includes many vague and over-broad provisions that authorities could easily abuse to censor critical speech and reporting and to threaten and target journalists,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We strongly urge President Mamnoon Hussain to veto this bill, and we call on legislators to ensure that any future draft cyber-security legislation contains firm and explicit press freedom protections.”

Information Technology Minister Anusha Rehman was quoted in local reports saying that criticism of the law was “baseless” because legislators had made 50 amendments to an earlier draft of the bill that threatened to limit online freedoms. She said civil-society groups that opposed the law had a “certain agenda,” without clarifying the allegation, according to news reports. Government authorities have said the legislation is necessary to combat terrorist groups, curb online harassment, and prevent other crimes, reports said.

CPJ research shows that laws intended to extend penal codes to cover digital platforms are often broadened to criminalize the standard practices of online journalists, encouraging internet users to censor themselves. While publicly justified as a means of preventing terrorism or fighting crime on the internet, such laws are also frequently used to curb the flow of information that governments deem sensitive.

Pakistani courts have insisted that censorship of the internet be limited by due process and provisions of the constitution that guarantee free expression. In 2012, a group of six citizens, including a journalist, used those protections to successfully petition a court to put a stay against the government’s mass blocking of websites, CPJ reported at the time. The court ruled that internet regulators could exercise power over communication networks only “in an open, equitable, non-discriminatory, and consistent manner.” The ruling stopped government plans at the time to impose a “million-site” censorship blacklist.