Rip It Up and Start Again: Senators go hard on Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill in Pakistan

News & Analysis
People gathered in a meeting.

The much maligned Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) was dealt a critical blow by senior Senate members on Tuesday in Pakistan. Digital Rights Foundation, in conjunction with Bolo Bhi, held a consultation for members of the Pakistan Senate, other lawmakers, members of civil society, and the media.

The aim of the consultation was to discuss the Bill, the problematic provisions and amendments that have been suggested in its most recent version, and the steps that can be taken by the Senate, given that the Senate was to discuss the Bill on the same day.

Members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – who have a majority in the Senate – announced that the Party would not allow the Bill to pass in its current form. Not only that, but the Bill remains so flawed that amendments cannot be made to it, and that it needs to be redrafted in its entirety.

This is very welcome news. After the political grandstanding from the Minister of Information Technology, the bullish forcefulness from the National Assembly Committee chairman pushing the Bill out of a committee without consensus, and a vote to pass in a near empty National Assembly, the Bill finally came up against a real problem: proper scrutiny.

Senators Rubina Khalid and Farhatullah Barbar (both representing Khyber Pakhtunwa for the Pakistan People's Party), and Shahi Syed (representing Khyber Pakhtunwa for the Awami National Party), Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and Information, participated in the discussions at length. They voiced their concerns with the Bill, as well as the flawed process by which it was formulated and passed by the NA Standing Committee.

These sentiments were echoed by Senator Shahi Syed – who has in the past insisted that the Senate would not pass the PEC Bill, as it was against “freedom of speech” and other “fundamental rights”. The Senator called for a fully open public hearing to be held.

The call for public oversight and transparency regarding the formulation of the PEC Bill was a recurring theme throughout the consultation, highlighting one of the many problems with the process thus far. The Government and NA Standing Committee on IT have been accused of being reluctant to allow proper multi-stakeholder involvement, and for denying public oversight of the PEC Bill's formulation process.

The manner in which the Government has framed the PEC Bill has been in a security context, without acknowledging the interferences the Bill will have on fundamental rights of Pakistani citizens, like privacy and freedom of expression. Proper public consultations should be the venue for the discussion of this tension as well as how to remove the disproportionate and unnecessary interferences, to take place.

The response and commitments from those in attendance was heartening to see. However, words are one thing and action another. A Senate IT committee meeting is slated for next week; this will be the first chance for those behind such strong words to exert their force.

*Written by Adnan Chaudhry

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