By: Sarwar Alam
Pakistan’s government has introduced a new cybercrime law that could see social media users jailed for up to five years for posting “fake news” about the military, judiciary or public officials.
Critics say the legislation is the latest example of creeping restrictions on freedom of expression in the nation, already ranked among the world’s most dangerous for media workers.
It was approved by prime minister Imran Khan’s cabinet and swiftly adopted into law by president Arif Alvi over the weekend, an official in the presidential office said Monday.
The legislation takes effect immediately but must be presented to parliament within 90 days for approval, though it is expected that Khan’s coalition government will easily pass it.
In recent years the space for dissent in Pakistan has shrunk with the government cracking down on social networks and traditional media outlets, who say pressure from above has resulted in widespread self-censorship.
Criticism of the security establishment has long been seen as a red line and rights groups say the new law further shields it — and other state institutions — from scrutiny.
“It will … inevitably be used to clamp down on dissenters and critics of the government and state institutions,” said the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which called the legislation “undemocratic”.
The law amends existing defamation rules forbidding false online information that “intimidates or harms the reputation or privacy” of an individual.
It broadens the scope to include “any company, association or body of persons” and “institution, organisation, authority or any other body established by the government”.
The maximum penalty has also been increased from three years to five and suspects will not be granted bail, meaning the accused will await trial in jail.
On Sunday justice minister Farogh Naseem said “rumours that it is an attempt to gag media are baseless”.
“You are free to criticise, but the issue is that there should be no fake news,” he told reporters.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists vowed to challenge the “draconian amendments” in court.
It said the changes aim “to shrink space for freedom of press and expression which is already compromised in the country”.
Governments around the world are battling with the issue of disinformation and misinformation spread on social media, and some have seized on so-called “fake news” as a pretext for dismissing unfavourable reports and bolstering propaganda.