As Senate prepares to discuss PEC Bill, civil society reiterates their concern

News & Analysis
As Senate prepares to discuss PEC Bill, civil society reiterates their concern

20 June 2016

Privacy International joins DRF and A19 in reiterating our serious concerns about the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill which is currently being discussed in the Senate in Pakistan. While we note that the Bill adopted by the National Assembly in April 2016 includes some improvements compared to the earlier version, the Bill as currently drafted introduces a series of new provisions that pose a grave risk to freedom of expression and privacy in Pakistan.

In the context of growing concerns over government surveillance of activists, bloggers, journalists, as well as ordinary internet users and the expanding surveillance capacity of Pakistani authorities, particularly intelligence agencies, the Bill, if adopted in the current form, will further undermine the protection of the right to privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights. As it stands the Bill is contrary to Pakistan's obligations under international law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Pakistan is party.

We raise the following concerns related to specific provisions impacting on the right to privacy. The comments are based on applicable international human rights standards and on our experience promoting human rights internationally across multiple legal frameworks.

On April 13, 2016 the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB).The failure to release the document publicly until May 7,  two days before the convening of the Senate of Pakistan, reinforces the lack of transparency and open consultation that has marked the government's approach concerning the legislative process behind the PECB. Throughout the process, the NA Standing Committee on IT has chosen to consult  behind closed doors, keeping civil society organisations outside and avoiding public oversight. The PECB has been heavily criticised by several Pakistani and international organisations, as well as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

The NA Standing Committee has also sought to prevent its own members from examining drafts of the PECB. When the PECB was first approved by the National Assembly Standing Committee on IT in September 2015 it was revealed that the approved draft had been shared with the chairman of the standing committee, but not the rest of the committee. Legitimate objections – that the Bill could not be approved until the draft had been read by the rest of the committee – were overruled by the standing committee chairman, on the grounds that as he had seen it, and that was sufficient for approval. PPP MNAs Shazia Marri and Nauman Islam Sheikh, had rightly stressed that the draft PECB could not be approved until they and the other members of the committee had read the finalised draft. This bypassing of necessary review by the committee as a group was criticised by Senator Sherry Rehman via twitter.

There has been a complete lack of transparency by the government of the drafting process of a piece of legislation that will have serious consequences for the rights of privacy and freedom of expression of Pakistani citizens. The situation has drawn the attention and concern of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye. The Special Rapporteur released a statement in December 2015, urging the government to ensure that the PECB respect freedom of expression, or else “if adopted, the draft legislation could result in censorship of, and self-censorship by, the media” and other segments of society.

Civil society and other stakeholders have consistently called upon the government to implement amendments that respect and protect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression of Pakistani citizens. Until now, these calls have been largely ignored. What we ask is that the Senate not only dismiss the Bill, but that the PECB be redrafted to address the problematic provisions previously identified. Whilst, a cybercrime bill is necessary in the world we live in, the PECB has been flawed from its inception, claiming the importance of security over civil liberties, and must be rebuilt from the ground up, with careful and considered input from all civil society stakeholders. In its current form, the Bill and the possibility for it to become law, remains a danger to, rather than a protector of, the rights of Pakistani citizens. The Senate must take the opportunity to not only return the Bill back to the Committee, but it must also ask that the Bill be redrafted entirely, and to take on the comments and input of the Senate and of civil society.