Ruling Coalition Yet To Finalise PECA Amendment For Assembly Farewell Session

Ruling Coalition Yet To Finalise PECA Amendment For Assembly Farewell Session
ISLAMABAD: As Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has announced to hand over the administration of the country to a caretaker government in August, the coalition government is still undecided on amending the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) of 2016 in the farewell session of the current 15th National Assembly.

The controversial law, along with some other pending legislation, is under consideration of the ruling coalition's legal wizards, as they intend to dispose of legislative business before their tenure expires constitutionally.

Sources say that the amendments to the controversial PECA law have not yet been finalized by lawmakers of the ruling coalition. The amendment bill was intended to be presented in the last session of the National Assembly, which is likely to be summoned next week.

Coalition consensus required

Talking to The Friday Times (TFT), Chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Law and Justice, Mehmood Bashir Virk said that they had yet to reach a consensus to amend the PECA law and present the amendments in the Parliament. He said the amendment would only be possible with the approval of leadership of all coalition partners.

When contacted, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Murtaza Javed Abbasi confirmed that the government plans to summon the final session of the National Assembly soon. Abbasi said the government has planned to table some pending legislation in the last session, but refrained from sharing the details of legislative business that would be presented at the coming session.

Some senior members of parliament, wishing not to be named, said that the approval for amendment will be taken from all concerned quarters, as the amendments may also be used for "political purposes".

Background of PECA law

Pakistan's electronic crimes law PECA was passed seven years ago in the National Assembly with strong protest of the-then opposition on its clauses that they termed an attempt to curb freedom of expression in the country.

According to the legislation, which passed with majority of votes, satire-based websites and social media accounts could be prosecuted under the crime of ‘spoofing’, which makes it an offence to run a website or send information with a “counterfeit source”.

The legislation also authorised the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and its officers to unlock any computer, mobile phone or other electronic device that may be required for the purpose of investigating a crime or offence.

PTI's PECA Ordinance

In November 2020, the PTI government framed social media laws under PECA, drawing criticism from digital rights activists as well as the internet service providers (ISPs) of Pakistan. President Arif Alvi promulgated an ordinance to amend the PECA law on February 20 last year, a day after the federal cabinet had given approval for the same.

PTI's human rights minister at the time, Shireen Mazari, with some of the cabinet members in Imran Khan’s government, had raised objections to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022, terming it a controversial law.

The PECA law's Section 20 – which criminalises defamation – has been challenged before the Islamabad High Court (IHC) by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA).

Consequently, PECA was declared unconstitutional by the IHC in April 2022, and the court scrapped Section 20 of the PECA Ordinance. Later, the FIA had challenged the IHC order in the Supreme Court, but the plea was withdrawn.

Inter-ministerial assistance for amending PECA

Sources told The Friday Times (TFT) that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), and the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MoITT) have all provided their expertise and assistance to a committee that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif established last year, under the leadership of Senator Azam Nazeer Tarar, Minister of Law and Justice. However, the committee has still not finalised the amendments to the law.