Online defamation in Pakistan now punishable by five years in prison
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a draconian amendment to Pakistan’s law combatting online disinformation that was issued quietly last weekend. If not struck down by the Supreme Court, it will provide the government and armed forces with a new mechanism for unrelenting censorship, RSF says.
As a result of an ordinance approved by the cabinet on 19 February (Saturday) and promulgated by the president the next day, online defamation in Pakistan is now punishable by up to five years in prison.
The ordinance amends section 20 of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which penalises posting “fake news” about the military, judiciary or public officials and which has already often been used by the authorites to silence journalists who dare to cross the regime’s implicit “red lines.”
The amendment makes online defamation an exclusively criminal offence, which means those charged will be denied any possibility of release on bail before trial. Worse still, it will prevent any possibility of a civil settlement between plaintiff and defendant dispensing with the need for a criminal trial.
Censorship and intimidation
Finally, the amendment will enable any person or entity to file a defamation complaint, including those who have no connection with the alleged defamation’s target. In other words, any political activist will be able to bring a defamation complaint against a journalist they think is overly critical of the government or military, for example. And such a complaint would send the journalist straight to prison.
“The provisions of the ordinance signed into law on 20 February with no form of consultation seem to have one sole aim – to impose a new form of censorship, intimidate journalists and get them to censor themselves,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Furthermore, it is hard not see a political calculation by a government that is approaching the end of its term and wants to silence any criticism in the run-up to the 2023 general elections. We call on Supreme Court chief justice Umar Ata Bandial to strike down this ordinance as unconstitutional and thereby preserve press freedom from the government’s attacks.”
After bringing much of the traditional press to heel by various forms of harassment and intimidation, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has often tried to reinforce the PECA law in order to impose a similar level of censorship on online publications. In December 2020, RSF was forceful in its denunciation of a decree that was eventually abandoned.
Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.