The government is increasingly coming under pressure over the recently promulgated ordinance introducing “controversial” amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) as different organisations of civil society challenged it in the high courts of Islamabad and Lahore on Tuesday and the journalist community announcing a protest outside the Parliament House on March 1.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) filed a petition in the IHC against the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Act Ordinance 2022. IHC CJ Athar Minallah will take up the case on Wednesday (today).
However, it is learnt that Attorney General for Pakistan Khalid Jawed Khan will appear before the IHC tomorrow (Thursday) and apprise the court of the government’s position that the
The ordinance would not be implemented without appropriate safeguards. It is learnt that AGP Khalid met with Prime Minister Imran Khan before his departure for Russia.
The AGP Office insiders confirmed that it has been agreed that the government would not implement the new law until it is regulated through safeguards which would be added in the rules.
President Dr Arif Alvi had promulgated the ordinance on Sunday, making online public defamation a cognisable and non-bailable offence and also increasing the jail term for defaming any person or institution from three years to five years.
The plea, filed by Rizwan Qazi on behalf of the PFUJ, has nominated the president’s secretary, the federation of Pakistan and the secretaries of law and information ministries as respondents in the case.
It contended that there was no “emergency situation” that called for issuing an ordinance of this nature.
It added that the ordinance was promulgated without passing the “necessary tests imposed under the Constitution of Pakistan for legislation through the mode and manner of ordinances”. It argued that the promulgation was based on “malice”.
The petition further read that the respondents tried to “sneak amendments to existing laws at the eleventh hour” despite the fact that the Senate was in session a day before the ordinance was promulgated. “It appears that the respondents had already prepared the draft of the ordinance and were waiting for the ongoing session to expire in order to avoid the due process of legislation,” it added.
The petition pointed out that while the Senate was in session till February 17, the National Assembly session scheduled for February 18 was called off at the eleventh hour.
It added that a session of the National Assembly could have been convened to amend the act.
The plea maintained that “killing freedom of expression” was tantamount to “sabotaging democracy in the country”. The union claimed in the plea that journalists were illegally arrested under the same law, which was now amended to make it more stringent.
It also contended that the insertion of Section 44-A to PECA through an ordinance was against the constitutional independence of the judiciary. “No country can survive a dictatorial regime where the people are imprisoned for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
The court was prayed to declare the amendments as contrary to the Constitution and fundamental rights.
PETITION FILED IN LAHORE: Separately, a writ petition was filed in the LHC challenging the ordinance, arguing that the government’s act was a sheer violation of not only the judgments laid down by the country’s top court but also the Constitution.
Petitioner Muhammad Ayyub maintained that the president had promulgated the Peca amendment ordinance with mala fide intention and for ulterior motives just to harass and blackmail the opposition as well as public at large. He added that the motive behind the promulgation of the ordinance was to directly attack the independence of the judicial system.
The petitioner pointed out that Article 19 of the Constitution mentioned the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of press. “Every citizen of Pakistan has the right to hold [an] opinion, the right to express them, and the right to speech. So, this ordinance is a sheer violation of Article 19 of the Constitution.”
He prayed the court that the ordinance be set aside and till the final decision of the petition, its operation be suspended. In another development, the Rawalpindi Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) announced a protest outside the Parliament House on March 1 against the Peca amendments.
RIUJ President Shakeel Ahmed has formed a management committee to organise the sit-in and streamline the movement against the ordinance.
Committees have been formed to reach out to political parties, religious organisations, Supreme Court Bar Association, Rawalpindi and Islamabad bars, civil society and CBA trade unions.
A statement issued by RIUJ General Secretary Mohammad Siddique Anzar read that PFUJ President GM Jamali, on the call of General Secretary Rana Mohammad Azeem, had completely rejected the Peca amendment ordinance and decided to stage a sit-in outside parliament on March 1.
An RIUJ meeting noted that restrictions had been imposed on the constitutional freedom of the media and judiciary by adding Section 44(a) to Peca. Also, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of media bodies described the government’s engagement with it over PECA amendments a “farce”.
A statement issued by the JAC, which comprises All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), PFUJ, Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND), read that dialogue with the government over the legislation regarding media was being suspended “until the draconian amendments to the Peca are reversed”.
“The information minister [Fawad Chaudhry] is toying with the media fraternity in the guise of engagement and keeps passing ordinances against freedom of speech while giving the impression that media fraternity is being engaged,” the statement added.
“There is a grave trail of examples after an example where the Ministry of Information is tampering with freedom of speech, muzzling the journalists right to report, financially crippling media to influence journalism.”
The statement further read that the journalist fraternity had warned of this before and appealed to the PM previously as well that a dangerous trend had been emerging which was creating a distance between the government and the public as well as media personnel. “All media bodies stand united to defend freedom of expression and people’s right to information.”
The legal fraternity has also expressed its concerns over the promulgation of the ordinance.
PAKISTAN BAR COUNCIL: The Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) has rejected the amendments to Peca through a presidential ordinance, saying that it was an attempt to impose restrictions on the freedom of expression and dissenting voices of media.
In a statement, PBC Vice Chairman Hafeezur Rehman Chaudhry and Executive Committee Chairman Muhammad Masood Chishti expressed their concerns and were of the view that through these amendments, the government was trying to clamp down on critics and those working towards upholding the rule of law.
They said laws already existed to protect institutions and this ordinance seemed only to suppress the freedom of media guaranteed under the Constitution They demanded that the government should immediately withdraw the ordinance, saying the legal fraternity had always supported an independent media.
BALOCHISTAN HIGH COURT BAR: The Balochistan High Court Bar Association (BHCBA) also passed a resolution unequivocally condemning the amendments, noting that the black law would never have seen the light of day had parliament been in session.
Secondly, the resolution read, the ordinance was yet another instance of a “delinquent” law ministry pandering to the self-serving egos of those who wish to rule in an autocratic manner – oppressing any reasonable criticism as “fake news”. “This Association is of the firm view that Article 89 of the Constitution … may only be invoked by the President … if and when there are circumstances which render it absolutely necessary to take immediate action, however, no such emergent circumstances exist that would require draconian punishments and threats of speedy trials to punish critics of those in public authority.”
The BHCBA observed that the ordinance trampled the fundamental right to free speech under Article 19 of the Constitution that every citizen of Pakistan must have and was the type of legislation that was the preserve of fascist and dictatorial regimes. In this regard, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) announced full support for the JAC against the ruling PTI.
PML-N: Meanwhile, PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb on Tuesday said in a statement that the ordinance “was a unique blunder where punishment comes before even defining the crime”. She said independent and upright judges had been made to “bow down” before the administration which is against the concept of freedom and independence of judiciary.
“This black law is a violation of the Constitution of Pakistan and the spirit of freedom it promises,” she added. She said that PECA was a violation of basic human rights, adding that the PML-N would fight at all forums to defend the freedom of expression and freedom of the press and media. “This Peca is basically a rebranded and re-engineered version of the rejected Pakistan Media Development Authority.”
The PML-N would fight this “draconian and despotic tyrannical rule” of Premier Imran with democratic and Constitutional means, she added. Marriyum said lawyers, media persons and political workers would join forces with the general public to defeat these “forces of fascism”. “This is a battle to guard the Constitution and democracy of Pakistan which would be fought with everything one can muster up,” the statement quoted her as saying. PM Imran, she said, like every other despot before him, was destined to be defeated.