The irony couldn’t have been thicker.
On April 13, Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, passed a controversial cybercrime bill that infringes on its citizens’ right to free speech. On the same day, a Pakistani group was honoured for its tireless work towards defending freedom of expression, whose centrepiece has been a campaign against the “draconian cybercrime legislation”.
“Many times in our struggles we get disillusioned because there are no visible results or quick victories,” said Farieha Aziz, co-founder of Bolo Bhi. “(But) that shouldn’t be our benchmark. What’s important is the process, and that we keep at it.”
Aziz has been at it since 2012, when she founded Bolo Bhi along with activist Sana Saleem. At that time, the non-profit, with its all-women management team, was a response to the Pakistan government’s attempts to create a national firewall like China’s.
However, over the years, it has become bigger, launching internet freedom programmes, publishing research papers, fighting for gender rights and government transparency, and running digital security training sessions across Pakistan.
Back in September 2012, when Pakistan banned YouTube for hosting “anti-Islam videos”, it was Bolo Bhi that “got commitments from businesses” worldwide not to bid for a tender floated by the government.
“We believe it is crucial to bridge the gap between rights advocates, policy makers, media and average citizens,” says the group’s Facebook page. “Bridging the gap enables collective strength and concentrated focus on the areas that require attention.”
Bolo Bhi’s biggest fight thus far has been against the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, which critics view as a “chilling threat to cyber freedom”.
One of the provisions in the Bill gives the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority sweeping rights to block access to any information “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof”.
Other provisions criminalise the transfer of “sensitive basic information”, sending of messages “irritating to others or for marketing purposes”, creation of a “website for negative purposes”, and any interference “in sensitive data information systems”.
Throughout the Bill's progression, Bolo Bhi has campaigned tirelessly against it, even creating a timeline that tracks every development. Despite those efforts, though, the Bill was passed by Pakistan’s National Assembly on April 13. The legislation will now be debated in the Pakistan Senate, where it may have trouble passing since the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), doesn’t have the numbers.
“This struggle will now continue at the Senate stage, and we expect that the upper house of Parliament will give a fair hearing and address the issues in the content of the Bill and problems with the process of its passage,” said Aziz.
Bolo Bhi's assiduous activism and work are not going unnoticed. In mid-April, it received the 2016 Freedom of Expression Award for Campaigning from Index on Censorship, an international organisation defending the right to freedom of expression.
Bolo Bhi reminds us that Pakistan can’t stop criminal activities by blocking websites. “Online crime will need to be dealt with under cybercrime legislation through due process and adequate safeguards,” Aziz said. “Let’s not allow ‘but we must act against criminals’ to be connected to an issue that has no relevance to it, and used as an excuse to deprive us of our rights.” It has its work cut out.