On Feb. 20, 2022, Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi signed two ordinances that made changes to the contentious Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. PECA was established under the pretext of protecting against fake news and online crimes including cyber harassment. But a prioritization of complaints by political figures and the increasing criminalization of defamation have led people to fear this act rather than feel protected. Among other amendments that seek to significantly change the way media is put forth in Pakistan, the changes to the defamation laws mean that the previous punishment of three years has been extended to five, and defamation is now a non-bailable offense.
The day after the ordinances were signed, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association Ahsan Bhoon termed the new ordinance an “attack on freedom of press and expression.” Attorney General Khalid Javed Khan shared that the law “will be draconian if it comes into force as it is.” The Islamabad High Court ruled that PECA was unconstitutional. But what does this decision mean for Pakistan’s journalists?
MARGINALIZING THE MARGINALIZED
Since 2016, the constantly changing cybercrimes act has received criticism from both local and international human rights monitors. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned that an expansion of Pakistan’s criminal defamation laws would violate international agreements. Nadia Rahman, acting deputy regional director for South Asia at Amnesty International, criticized the law for silencing freedom of expression on “the pretext of combating ‘fake news,’ cybercrime and misinformation” and pointed out that it endangers journalists, human rights defenders, and political opponents.
While international pressure helps, the immediate issue is how these laws are impacting local journalists and activists. Activist Ammar Ali Jan positions the upcoming amendments in the context of a media that has been self-censoring dissenting voices for nearly a decade:
“Social media became a space for these marginalized voices. PTM [Pashtun Tahafuz Movement] could never be mentioned in mainstream media. I was of course never allowed on TV. Their primary concern is to shut down voices of criticism. So this will have a huge impact, they’re already marginalized in mainstream press.”
A HISTORY OF STATE CENSORSHIP
Media censorship in Pakistan isn’t new. Journalist Naimat Khan pointed to extensive, overt media control during the tenure of former President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled the country under martial law from 1978 to 1988. At that time, newspapers would be sent to the president’s office and any news that wasn’t deemed appropriate would be redacted. “As a way of pushing back against that censorship, journalists began to leave the spaces where news was censored blank instead of replacing it with other news so that readers would know that censorship is taking place,” Khan shared.
Digital media is often viewed as democratizing expression internationally, but Pakistan’s increasingly draconian laws are curbing that benefit for journalists.
Digital media is often viewed as democratizing expression internationally, but Pakistan’s increasingly draconian laws are curbing that benefit for journalists. Sara B. Haider, a journalist who has worked in Pakistan’s mainstream media for eight years, describes censorship as “the biggest threat to the growth of the media industry in Pakistan” and:
“Unlike in the past, the flow of news is not linear anymore; because of social media and the rise of participatory journalism, there are fewer barriers to entry and the dissemination of information has become faster and more easily accessible to everyone.”
There is widespread fear and uncertainty around working in a country where stakeholders are alienated from such decisions. Digital rights groups and activists were not included in the debate around these laws, and the use of presidential powers leads to uncertainty as to just how much the government can abuse its powers in such areas. “These laws will increase another layer of self-censorship among journalists — a practice that is already quite rampant in the country,” said Rimal Farrukh, an Islamabad-based journalist covering South Asia. She added:
“One of the basic tenets of journalism equals telling truth to power. If you can’t hold government and state institutions accountable then society is at risk of falling victim to dangerous power imbalances. The new laws insulate government authorities against criticism even more than before, which is quite frankly, alarming.”
Marginalized groups are even more fearful. In a country where they have already faced trolling for their opinions, the new law could make their online presence far more dangerous. “Earlier, political dissent on social media would result in online harassment or trolling of journalists, particularly female journalists, but now your opinion could be criminalized under the garb of defamation,” Haider shared. She feels vulnerable to the potential weaponization of this law, as someone who works specifically on issues around women’s empowerment, social justice, and the legal sector with the intention to amplify marginalized voices.
DROWNING OUT DIVERSITY
Growing attacks on feminist narratives in media have already shown that these laws will do little more than drown out dissenting voices from Pakistani media spaces as more and more journalists find themselves self-censoring. Haider also pointed out that media organizations will soon find themselves rethinking their own policies:
“Media organizations will not only have to pay a price if they don’t abide by the law and continue with their existing editorial policies (which allow criticism of the government) but you’d have to be careful while expressing political opinions on social media, even if they are posted in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of the organization you work for.”
In all this noise, it will be those from marginalized backgrounds, who already struggle with getting mainstream media representation, that bear the brunt of the consequences. As Jan, whose work with the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement focuses on uplifting silenced communities, said:
“When you have groups who are not heard by the public, their suffering increases. Their voice becomes inaudible. Social media was one place they could put their views forward. So when you take away that space from within those communities, it creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty because they will remain invisibilized.”
Yet, Jan also believes a people’s movement is the way to fight back. He argued that educating people on their rights, having them fight for space for their voices and reshifting debates on democracy to include citizenship and fundamental constitutional rights is one of the main ways in which Pakistani citizens can fight back against such draconian measures::
“People have genuine grievances and questions and they have a right to express those. It’s unfortunate that we relate any kind of dissenting voice with a deep plot against Pakistan. We have to accept the diversity of voices in Pakistan and accept people wanting change and if we do that only then can we have a freer media and a stable Pakistan.”
Will the government ever appreciate Pakistan’s diverse voices or keep on curbing media freedoms? The answer is far from clear.
Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist and founder of Perspective Magazine. Her work focuses on gender justice movements across the globe and looks at the intersectionality of such movements with areas like media, tech, climate, and more.