Pakistan's President Arif Alvi delivers a speech in Islamabad on March 25, 2021. Alvi recently enacted an ordinance expanding penalties for online defamation. (AFP/Aamir Qureshi)

Pakistan expands prison terms for online defamation to 5 years

New York, February 22, 2022 – Pakistan authorities must immediately revoke a recently enacted ordinance that further criminalizes freedom of expression in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

On Sunday, February 20, President Arif Alvi enacted amendments to the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, increasing the prison term for online defamation on social media platforms from three to five years, following an expedited trial that would conclude “preferably not later than six months of taking cognizance of the case,” according to news reports and a copy of the ordinance, which CPJ reviewed.

The amendments allow any member of the public to make a complaint and empower police to arrest suspects without warrants, according to those sources, which said that suspects arrested under the law will not be entitled to bail.

In a press conference, Law Minister Farogh Naseem said the ordinance would not be used to gag the media, and that criticism would be allowed so long as it does not constitute “fake news.”

“Pakistan’s recently amended defamation ordinance marks a dangerous escalation of the government’s ability to silence critical voices and curb press freedom online,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Pakistan authorities must immediately revoke the ordinance, which would allow the government to imprison people for what it deems to be unacceptable speech.”

The ordinance amends a section of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, pertaining to the publication of information that harms the “reputation or privacy of a natural person.” The new ordinance, officially titled the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022, also expands the definition of a “person” to include any company, association, group of people, or government body, including the military and judiciary.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, created broad crimes related to the “glorification” of terrorist offenses and “cyber-terrorism,” and criminalized “spoofing,” or running a website or sending information with a “counterfeit source.” CPJ has repeatedly documented how the law has been used to detain, investigate, and harass journalists in retaliation for their work.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via messaging app.