On August 9, 2023, the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) was dissolved by Pakistan's president, Arif Alvi, following advice from the country's prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, to pave way to a general election by mid-November. This dissolution comes after the arrest of Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan on August 5, on charges of corrupt practices. Moreover, on August 8, the election commission ruled to disqualify Khan from seeking office for a duration of five years.
Despite the fact that the current prime minister refuted any personal animosity with his political adversary Imran Khan, who enjoys substantial popularity, the government passed in haste dozens of bills that limit civil liberties, stifle public voices and criticism, and bolster the authority of the military.
Laws limiting freedom of criticism or exposing truth
On August 1, 2023, the Pakistan Army Act (Amendment) Bill, 2023 was passed which is aimed at criminalising individuals who reveal information detrimental to the security and interests of Pakistan or its armed forces. On the same day, amendments to Official Secrets Act (1923) were promulgated, designed to give broad powers to intelligence agencies, allowing them to conduct raids and detain civilians without a warrant, even based on suspicion of legal breaches.
On August 8, 2023, Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill 2023, and an amendment to Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) resulting in a ten-year increase of the jail-time for blasphemy were introduced. These laws may exacerbate violence against religious minorities.
Journalist Arif Rafiq posted on X (formerly Twitter):
In the final days of its tenure, Pakistan's coalition government is attempting (with mixed results) to fast-track laws that would further limit civil liberties and enhance the power of the army and intelligence agencies.
— Arif Rafiq (@ArifCRafiq) August 7, 2023
Laws limiting press freedom and digital rights
On August 9, 2023, the senate unexpectedly passed the amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Act, which will intensify censorship on journalists and media houses. This bill was withdrawn only a few days ago after fierce opposition.
On July 26, 2023, the cabinet approved the widely debated E-Safety Bill 2023, which is aimed at regulating content on social media platforms. On August 9, 2023, the bill was sent back to the law ministry for vetting.
In contrast, several bills were scrapped, such as the Supreme Court (Review of Judgments and Orders) Act, 2023, which could pave they way for the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and heighten the rivalry faced by Shehbaz Sharif in the upcoming election.
The 15th Assembly of Pakistan, during the tenures of both Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif's administrations, managed to pass a total of 279 bills within the span of five years. Notably, over 70 of these bills were passed during the last three weeks of the Shehbaz Sharif government's term. The president also returned 13 bills without signing and asked the parliament to reconsider.
Draconian cyber laws
The hastily approved cyber laws, including the E-Safety Bill 2023 and the Personal Data Protection Bill 2023, along with the existing Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) which controls content from social media networks, will have a significant influence on the digital rights of citizens, as well as on the realms of e-commerce and the digital economy when they fully come into effect.
The main objective of the data protection bill is to safeguard users’ data and prevent the illegal use of information by consumers in online services, companies and social networking websites in Pakistan. Initially, a draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill was made available for input from the public, including civil society and digital advocates. Digital Rights Foundation, a rights-oriented organisation, outlined its apprehensions and recommendations, which were presented to the government in July 2023 to enhance the draft's quality. Their concerns included lack of clarity in some passages of the act, specifically, the questionable autonomy of the National Commission for Personal Data Protection since it is appointed by the government, and the requirement that “critical personal data” be localised — stored in servers located in Pakistan — which is understood as regressive given the scale and fluidity of data server operations globally.
Venture capitalist Faisal Aftab said on X (formerly Twitter):
We at the Venture Capital Association of Pakistan (#VCAP) 🇵🇰 are concerned about potential impact of Personal Data Protection Bill on #Pakistan‘s digital ecosystem. Striking a balance between national security and privacy protection is crucial. We urge comprehensive consultation… pic.twitter.com/79cm2IZsrC
— Faisal Aftab (@faisal_aftab) July 27, 2023
The E-Safety Bill is designed to monitor the front-end of all websites, take notice of violations and potentially impose penalties. Additionally, a fresh body called the E-Safety Authority will be established to oversee the registration and surveillance of websites, web channels, YouTube channels, and the established online platforms of media organisations. Bytes for All, a digital platform focusing on Information, Communications and Technologies strongly criticised the E-Safety Bill and called it a draconian law. Their concerns include vague and broad definitions on terms like “Islamic values and ideology of Pakistan,” “harmful information,” and “incitement,” and that actions taken under the act are covered by broad impunity from courts or other authorities. Regarding regulation, the law suggests that any individual or entity operating or planning to operate a social network platform needs to register with the governing authority.
These bills have raised alarms for local and international digital activists and organisations. They have expressed concerns that these measures could lead to increased operational expenses, potentially forcing them to cease their operations in Pakistan and potentially impeding citizens’ freedom of expression rights.
On X (formerly Twitter), the Committee to Protect Journalists appealed:
#Pakistan lawmakers should reject or revise four draft bills likely to undermine press freedom and consult with journalists and other stakeholders in a transparent review process before putting the bills to a vote.https://t.co/kew6FxiKY1
— CPJ Asia (@CPJAsia) August 4, 2023
Global Network Initiative posted on X (formerly Twitter):
The PDPB imposes some of the most restrictive and onerous restrictions on data transfers seen across global data protection laws and would put the law of Pakistan out of step with all of its regional neighbors, as well as leading global economies including the US and the EU.
— Global Network Initiative (@theGNI) July 28, 2023
Asia Internet Coalition also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, sharing their reservations over the passing of the data protection and e-safety bills, including the possibility of this leading to Pakistan being isolated from the global community.
Activist Usama Khilji mentioned on X (formerly Twitter):
Internet companies write to @CMShehbaz to say if the PDM passes the E safety bill and Data protection bill in their current forms, @asia_aic companies will not be able to continue providing services to Pakistani citizens.
Does PDM not care about the economy of Pakistan at all? pic.twitter.com/0Wk1uTi8Ar
— Usama Khilji (@UsamaKhilji) August 6, 2023