Pakistan is under fire for toughening its controversial cybercrime law to allow anyone to file a complaint against posting so-called fake news on Twitter and Facebook, and for increasing the prison term from three to five years for those found guilty.
The changes to what is known as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, introduced on Sunday through a presidential ordinance or decree, have made spreading fake news or defaming any person or state institution online an offense for which there is no bail.
“It was important to bring this ordinance to curb fake news. Spreading fake news will now become an unbailable offense with up to five years imprisonment,” said Farogh Naseem, federal minister of law and justice.
Political opponents and free speech advocates have denounced the move as an attempt by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to stifle freedom of expression.
The criminal defamation law was originally enacted in 2016 by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, and harshly criticized back then as an assault on dissent and political rivals.
Marriyum Aurangzeb, a spokesperson for the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N Party headed by Sharif, criticized the government Monday for what she said were “draconian and black” amendments to the law. She told reporters in Islamabad that the amendments give sweeping powers to federal authorities to detain anyone on allegations of spreading fake news.
In a statement, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists said the government action was “unwarranted and deplorable” and undermined media freedoms.
The undemocratic act “will inevitably be used to clamp down on dissenters and critics of the government and state institutions,” said the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent rights defender.
Reema Omer, a South Asia legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists, said the amendments have made the existing law “more oppressive.”
“This has happened at a time when there is a global movement against criminal defamation laws, with such laws being considered incompatible with freedom of speech,” Omer said on Twitter.
While defending the ordinance at a news conference on Sunday, Naseem acknowledged that recent misinformation through social media posts about an alleged rift between Khan and the first lady, as well as the use of abusive language against the recently retired chief justice of Pakistan, prompted the government to toughen the measure.
“This law will put an end to such news reports,” he said.