About two weeks ago, four very similar FIRs were registered in Pakistan against journalists and activists by unrelated citizens, all complaining about “negative propaganda against [the country’s] state institutions” on their social media accounts.

Very similar sections of the law have been cited by the supposedly unrelated complainants, mostly to do with defamation in the Pakistan Penal Code and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, as well as wrongfully citing the draconian Section 37 of the Act which deals with “unlawful online content” and is meant for takedown requests to internet companies, not file charges against an individual citizen. How such dubious complaints with unrelated sections of the law were entertained is anybody’s guess.

Of late, news has been circulating on social media about another “list” – reportedly 49 names of activists and journalists. The rumour is that the Federal Investigation Agency is registering cases under Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, has strong evidence, and will not let go.

There has been much confusion post this revelation. Various journalists are coming up with their own scoops as to what is actually transpiring, whereas the human rights minister tweeted quoting the Federal Investigation Agency that the complaint received from a “private citizen” is against 12 journalists and that the “Federal Investigation Agency cannot register FIR under Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act without following specified legal procedure”. Meanwhile, confirmations from some journalists started coming in that they have been summoned to the Federal Investigation Agency office.

Chilling effect

And off goes the frenzy of another “crackdown”, more events, more confirmations and denials, more looking for glimmers of hope, more consolations that “at least we know where they are and what the charges are”, and another distraction to occupy the mind of any citizen who may dare to consider criticising a state that functions on her or his taxes. When the fundamental constitutional right to freedom of speech exists as much as it is out of reach. Chilling effect.

As if this were not enough, there has also been prominent coverage of a private member’s bill by a member from the ruling party to amend the Pakistan Penal Code to insert Section 500-A pertaining to “intentional ridicule, brings into disrepute, or defames the armed forces ... or a member thereof”, a proposed crime that would be punishable with two-year imprisonment and/or 0.5 million Pakistani rupee fine.

There are multiple issues with such a proposition – the subjective and vague nature of such a clause leaves plenty of room for further abuse, seeks to silence accountability when undue political meddling is rightfully questioned as per Article 244 of the Constitution and, glaringly, is a violation of Article 19 which guarantees freedom of speech and press freedom.

The intent behind such cases is to discourage people from participation in political discourse, effectively rendering them devoid of their Article 19 rights. The intent is also to cause journalists that question, activists that want to effect change, or even officials that seek to represent their constituents to be disenchanted with trying to have a voice.

Controlling narratives in futile

It also raises questions regarding the abuse of legislation that exists to protect citizens but is instead used against them. Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act has been weaponised against women who speak out about their harassers, journalists who are doing their jobs and activists who question state policies. Section 37 is being actively used to censor content on the internet and to get social companies to comply with the control-centric tendencies of the state, through the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.

And the Federal Investigation Agency has been anything but the protector of citizens. Being absent from hearings in court, losing investigation files, and intimidating and harassing dissidents is not their job.

Despite the Pakistan Supreme Court judgement clearly disallowing the Federal Investigation Agency from charging citizens who are not public officials under the Pakistan Penal Code, sections from the penal code are added along with Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act offences. Misapplication of Section 10, one of the few cognisable offences in the Act which can only be added in addition to Section 6, 7, 8, or 9, is often added to cases in conjunction with Section 20 dealing with defamation; and Section 11 that pertains to religion- or race-related hate speech.

The state must realise that controlling narratives on social media is neither practically possible nor legally permissible, and tactics that intimidate and harass activists and journalists violate rights and do not belong in a democracy. Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act must be amended, and the Federal Investigation Agency should be better trained and made accountable to parliament, which it has only reported to twice when it is supposed to have done so twice a year since 2016.

The announcement by the Pakistan Bar Council to represent for free any journalist with a cybercrime or sedition case, and the Senior Journalists Forum cancelling an event with the information minister in solidarity with persecuted journalists, is the kind of unity needed to push back against the chilling effect that seems to be intended to silence citizens.

This article first appeared in Dawn.