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‘Go to hell’ — Imran Khan govt faces journalists’ wrath on new law curbing dissent

Pakistan govt claims the amendment to Electronic Crimes Prevention Act will help curb 'fake news' on social media. Journalists and opposition say it's a 'new tool of control'.

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New Delhi: Pakistan’s latest ordinance amending the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 has come under severe criticism from the country’s media, civil society and Human Rights Commission, which called the legislation “undemocratic”. Some even called it “oppressive” with one of the sharpest rebukes coming from a Dawn journalist who told the Imran Khan government to “Go to hell with all your ordinances”.

On Sunday, Pakistan President Arif Alvi issued an ordinance that abolished the exemption given to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)-licensed TV channels under the 2016 Act. The Imran Khan government claims this will help curb ‘fake news’ on social media. In reality, though, journalists and the opposition parties say that this step suppresses dissenting views as criticism of the government becomes punishable.

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New tool to curb dissent?

The Electronic Crime Prevention Ordinance, 2022 includes four amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and a whole new section that brings fake news or ridiculing any person on television under the category of electronic crime.

Anyone found guilty of giving fake news will be punished for three years to five years, and anyone can file a case instead of the victim. Moreover, the offence will be non-bailable. The matter is to be decided at the earliest but the maximum period has been fixed at six months. The trial court shall submit the progress report of the case every month to the concerned high court and shall state the reasons and constraints for delay in the matter.

The Media Joint Action Committee (JAC), which includes many media organisations of Pakistan, opposed this law saying that it is a step taken by the government to suppress the freedom of media, freedom of speech and dissenting voices.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan tweeted its criticism of the law.

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Media, opposition speak as one

Pakistan Observer, in an editorial, advocated the strengthening of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, saying that “it must also be seen and ensured that these laws are not abused or misused to target or punish opponents, as may be a possibility especially in our country where polarisation is on the rise.”

Pakistan Today said in an editorial, “It seems the government is trying to kill two birds with one stone. Its previous attempts to control the press and electronic media were condemned by the international NGO Reporters without Borders, as attempts at censorship. But the second law seems a reaction to the ECP advising the PM not to visit his native Mianwali, because Punjab was going to have an election. It is also possible that the opposition’s threat of a no-confidence vote against the PM comes into the equation, for just as the opposition is upping its game against him, he will be equipping himself with a new tool of control.”

Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s leader Maryam Nawaz claimed that the law will only be used against them.

Senator Sherry Rehman of Pakistan Peoples Party was also among the many to criticise the law.

Reema Omar, South Asia legal advisor to the International Commission of Jurists, called the law ‘oppressive’.

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