Since mid-May, the cyber wing of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency has arrested dozens of people under the newly enacted Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 for criticising the government on social media. The crackdown was ordered by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan after the military received a barrage of criticism regarding its handling of the investigation into the “Dawn Leaks” case.

The case refers to a report published by the Dawn newspaper in October that exposed the power struggle between the political government and the military high command over the actions of militant groups that the government claimed had led to Pakistan’s growing international isolation. An inquiry by the prime minister’s office established the story was based on the minutes of a meeting that had been leaked to the media by a government functionary, who was subsequently removed. On May 10, the military’s media affairs wing tweeted its rejection of the government’s findings, but withdrew the tweet after it was severely criticised for undermining democracy.

As I reported in February, the ratification of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (also known as the Cyber Crimes Law) solidified a vague and vast definition of what constitutes an “internet crime”. Digital rights advocacy groups like Bolo Bhi and Digital Rights Foundation had warned of the risk of government overreach under the law. Legal professionals insisted it could undercut article 19 of the Constitution that ensures freedom of speech and expression. But, ultimately, these opposition groups saw none of their complaints addressed in the new law.

Since Partition, freedom of speech in Pakistan has been regularly curtailed. The authoritarian regimes of both Ayub Khan (1958-1969) and Zia ul-Haq (1978-1988) heavily censored media outlets and used violence to shape public discourse. After the 1958 military coup that established Khan’s presidency, he banned Opposition political parties and perpetuated four years of martial law. Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws – which carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam – were enacted by Zia ul-Haq’s government and are still being abused to this day. This was evident in the murder of Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student, in April for allegedly offending Islam in a Facebook post. During Pervez Musharraf’s presidency (2001-2008), the aptly named Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority was created to tame the media and effectively bring it under state control. The Cyber Crimes Law is the latest addition in a long line of policy decisions that suppress citizens’ right to free expression.

Activists protest in Karachi in April against the murder of Mashal Khan, who was beaten and shot dead by a mob for a Facebook post. Photo credit: Asif Hassan/AFP.

Internet clampdown

As internet penetration expands in Pakistan, citizens are taking advantage of the pluralist digital space that has been less regulated than the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority-controlled broadcast and print media. The Cyber Crimes Law has the capacity to continue this legacy of suppression in the growing digital sphere, not only regulating web-based media outlets but individual social media users.

Over the past 30 years, countless Pakistani journalists have been intimidated, abducted, and killed while the courts fail to deliver justice and no government officials are held to account. The Cyber Crimes Law creates new formal legal channels for the government to censor free speech.

In the last two months, Adnan Afzal Qureshi, a member of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, Haseeb Zahid, the son of a Pakistan People’s Party leader, and journalist Zafarullah Achakzai were arrested. They were charged under the Cyber Crimes Law for “making defamatory remarks” and “harming the reputation of a person”, while Achakzai was also accused of “writing against national security institutions” on social media.

In addition, the authorities stated that over 200 Facebook and Twitter accounts were under investigation. The Federal Investigation Agency, tasked with enforcing the law, has also sent out a number of inquiries to outspoken critics and political figures, directing them to report to its counter-terrorism wing in Islamabad for a hearing. Many reported having their laptops and cellphones seized. It is a costly inconvenience to force journalists to travel across the country to the northern capital, and moreover, it is a bureaucratic tool to harass and intimidate political dissidents.

In the first few months after the ratification of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, only a handful of arrests were made under it. Many of these cases related to terrorism and harassment – two undeniably grave problems the government repeatedly invoked to gain support for the law. But the underlying draconian qualities of the law are now becoming more visible. The string of arrests targeting political dissidents exemplifies how detrimental this law can be for free speech rights in Pakistan’s less-than-stable democracy.

Regressive laws like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act inhibit the crucial role that digital media and the new generation of thinkers, bloggers, and citizen journalists play in stabilising democracy. The internet must be allowed to flourish if Pakistan’s goal is a healthy democratic institution. Pakistan must confront this government-led slashing of free speech online with unified opposition, or this fledgling democracy will become increasingly volatile.

Matthew Marcus is a freelance writer primarily focused on basic human rights and freedom of expression online.