Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi this Sunday enacted a package of laws to control content on social networks, which, among other things, increases prison sentences for the crime of defamation and has been branded outright as “draconian” by activists and opposition leaders”.
The new legislation updates what is known as the Electronic Crime Prevention Act of 2016 (PECA) and removes bail, along with increasing the prison sentence for defamation of a person or institution from three to five years. The slandered do not have to plead their case themselves, but anyone can plead as a party.
Likewise, and in a measure aimed directly at the media, it broadens the definition of “persons suspected of defamation” to “any society, association or group of persons, whether established or not”, as opposed to “institutions organisations, authorities”. or any other “government-established entity”, including the country’s influential army.
The new regulation also speeds up trials in these cases, giving courts six months “after learning of the case” to complete the case, according to Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
Justice Minister Farogh Nasim has confirmed that these new laws specifically target the “spreading of false news to the extent that the media is free to criticize what it likes”, particularly in relation to information about a possible divorce of the ministers of the first country, Imran Jan
“They say that the first lady had an argument (with her husband) that caused her to leave home. How can such false stories be spread?” the minister asked.
In response, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has criticized laws it describes as “undemocratic” and intended to be “inevitably” used to “repress dissidents and critics of the government and state institutions.”
The opposition has also denounced the presidential decree’s “broad and draconian scope,” as Senator Sherry Rehman of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party put it.
The PECA has been amended several times since 2016. Without going further, the government changed regulations last year to allow authorities access to user data.
Censorship has increased in Pakistan since Khan’s military-backed government came to power after contentious 2018 elections.