Journalists face sedition charges under cybercrime law in Pakistan

Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) was passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan. in 2016. Screenshot from the Act.

Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) was passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan in 2016. Screenshot from the Act.

Three Pakistani journalists were charged with sedition between September 11 and 16 under Pakistan's 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), a law that has drawn widespread criticism for impacting citizens’ rights to expression and privacy.

The journalists are Asad Toor, a producer of a prime time TV show called “Sawal with Amber,” which is often critical of the government and the military; Bilal Farooqi, news editor of the Pakistani daily The Express Tribune; and Absar Alam, a former chairman at the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and a former anchor at AAJ news channel.

Toor was booked following a complaint filed by someone called Hafiz Ehtesham Ahmed, a resident of the city of Rawalpindi, who claimed that the journalist “used derogatory language to refer high-level government institutions, including the Pakistan Army.” Toor posted a copy of the complaint on social media:

Toor told Global Voices via WhatsApp that the First Information Report (FIR) was registered under sections 499 (defamation), 500 (punishment for defamation) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Pakistan Penal Code, and sections 11 (hate speech), 20 (offences against the dignity of a person), and 37 (unlawful online content) of the 2016 Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA).

On Wednesday, September 16, 2020, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) granted one-week protective bail to Toor.

Farooqi was detained outside his home on the night of September 11 after a complaint was lodged by a resident of Landhi, Karachi, alleging that Farooqi shared “highly objectionable material” and “defamed” the Pakistan Army on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Journalist Mubashir Zaidi tweeted:

Farooqi was released in the early morning of September 12 on a “personal guarantee” of his lawyer Jibran Nasir.

A similar FIR was filed against Alam in the city of Jhelum by Khursheed Alam, a lawyer, who claimed Alam used derogatory language against state institutions and personalities on his Twitter account and asked that he should be charged with sedition.

Both Farooqi and Alam are facing charges under Section 20 (offences against the dignity of a person) of the 2016 PECA.

Alam said that these charges and cases are a medal for him and he won't be pressured.

Facing a trial of treason is an honour in the struggle against a fascist regime. If Musharraf could not suppress us, my love, then what does General Bajwa think? Give Receipts #Bajwaleaks

“Show us the receipts” in this context refers to an investigation by website Fact Focus that exposed corruption in the Pakistani military.

According to a report by Freedom Network, there have been more than 90 cases of attacks and violations against journalists in Pakistan between May 2019 and April 2020.

Farieha Aziz, co-founder of Bolo Bhi, a local digital rights organization, tweeted:

Similar complaints were recently registered against a Pashtoon human rights activist Ihtesham Afghan.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issued a statement in solidarity.

The alarming increase in such actions against journalists confirms that the government is bent on muzzling freedom of expression. HRCP demands that the rights of citizens be respected and that both the government and state adopt course correction.

Former Supreme Court judge Justice M B Lokur stated on September 14, 2020, that “the government is using the sedition law with an iron hand to curb free speech in an overreaction to people's opinion.”

Mocking the military now a crime

On September 17, Pakistan's National Assembly passed an amendment to the penal code that criminalises attempts at ridiculing armed forces personnel.

The bill was proposed by MP Amjad Ali Khan from the ruling party PTI. The bill states that “deliberately mocking, tarnishing or defaming the armed forces or its members would be considered a crime. Those who do so could face up to two years in prison and a fine of Rs 500,000 or both.”

Gul Bukhari, a journalist and commentator tweeted:

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