August Issue 2015

By | Published 3 years ago

Mazhar Abbas is a senior analyst and columnist, Jang and Geo Group

In the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, “unauthorised access” is defined as “access to an information system or data without authorisation or in violation of the terms and conditions of the authorisation.” This, along with the copying and transmission of data obtained via unauthorised means, are punishable offences. Don’t you think the term ‘unauthorised access’ is, at best, vague, and can be misused by the government to suit its own ends?

In principle I am not against the basic spirit behind the PECB 2015. But do the authorities really have the capacity and ability to ensure there will be checks and balances? I have my doubts. For the last six decades there has been a great deal of “unauthorised access” — and you know by whom. After this law they will get the legal cover to such unauthorised access. The laws in Pakistan have been misused against political opponents and human rights activists. Laws are repeatedly made and amended, and that is very dangerous, because they can be misused by future governments, particularly if they are not democratic. Even otherwise, white collar crimes are difficult to identify and prosecute, and it is hard to get early justice. So, a very candid approach is needed on all fronts, if we are really serious about curbing cyber crime. The terms “national interest,” “national security” and “ideology of Pakistan” have often been used against political opponents. So, before including these in any law, all these terms need to be properly defined.

How would this bill affect journalism in particular?

It can and will hit the media, both print and electronic, depending on the government’s mood. Section 31 directly impacts freedom of expression and of the press. There are some other sections as well, which, if implemented, could suppress the media. In some countries, rights organisations challenge such laws and superior courts often strike them down.

Through this law the government could very easily gain control over the electronic media. TV shows, including political satire, and investigative journalism, in particular, would be badly hit. Censorship could even be imposed, and that too, legally.

Some of the clauses in this bill also violate Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution. While I am not an IT expert, nor a lawyer, on the face of it the proposed bill looks to me as being dangerous for the media.

Interestingly, the debate on cyber crime in the country started after the first high profile cyber crime in Pakistan  — when Wall Street Journal correspondent, Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in 2002. His photograph in captivity was released online a few days after his kidnapping, along with a list of his kidnappers’ demands. Later, a video of his beheading was sent to one of the news agencies. The incident created a sensation in Pakistan.

In the aftermath of Pearl’s case the government introduced the Cyber Crime Ordinance, but due to its non-serious approach, it lapsed. So for many years we had a department to deal with cyber crimes, but without any law.

The murder case of well-known journalist, Saleem Shahzad, could have easily been solved had the authorities investigated it in the same manner in which they resolved the Daniel Pearl case. But even basic issues such as the data from the calls made on his phone, just before and after his kidnapping, were not traced.

The fact is that journalists’ unions, editors and professional bodies are more engaged in trying to get ‘donations’ and clear their outstanding dues from the government, than in dealing with serious issues. They have barely reacted to the proposed bill, let alone challenged it.

Under the clauses of the bill, the government can withhold even the most basic information that the public has the right to access. How do you think this will impact the functioning of democracy in Pakistan?

Democracy and freedom of expression have become a myth in Pakistan. In reality, there is neither democracy nor freedom of speech. There is also no rule of law. The only rules of the game are those defined by the country’s powerful people, who can get away with everything, lawful or unlawful.

Today, you can’t talk about issues like missing persons or the plight of Balochistan. What happened with GEO in the aftermath of its questionable editorial judgment on April 19 last year, after the attack on leading anchor Hamid Mir, could be an eye-opener for all those who claim that the media is free in Pakistan. The channel could not recover. Other channels too face pressure from state and non-state actors, and are sometimes taken off air. And there is no one to come to their rescue. As a result, they are left with no other option but to bow before the powerful mafia and apologise. Democracy can’t flourish without a powerful and simultaneously responsible media.

What terms do you think can be added to this clause to make it more acceptable?

A cyber law is needed and there can be no two opinions about that. Hate material needs to be checked and those involved in using it must be caught. But has the ban on YouTube helped in checking such material? No. On the contrary, it has deprived people from getting useful information. Checks and balances are an important part of responsible freedom of expression, but to have this you also need a speedy justice system, clean officers in the FIA, and maybe even a separate police force comprising well-educated people with experience both in technology and in policing.

In the presence of PEMRA, there is no need to introduce clauses in the cyber law which will impinge on the freedom of the press and of expression. However, some amendments are needed. To begin with, PEMRA should be made an autonomous body, run by professional people with experience in media and administration.

This interview was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.

The writer is an Assistant Editor at Newsline. (Website: alibhutto.com)