Pakistani Cybercrime Law Threatens Freedom of Speech, Fails to Solve Dangerous Speech

Though it’s tempting to ‘solve’ Dangerous Speech by making it a crime, laws punishing speech are all too often misused, restricting legitimate expression without inhibiting speech that is harmful. Indeed countries across the world are now using the real dangers of terrorism and hatred to pass vague or overbroad new laws against speech online. For instance Kuwait, Tanzania, and Ethiopia have recently passed restrictive cybercrime laws, Brazil, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, and Zimbabwe have considered them, and Tanzania has already used its new law to stifle political views critical of the government. Similarly, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Russia are using cybercrime and anti-extremism laws against dissenters and minority groups.

Now Pakistan has passed a cybercrime law that is an alarming attempt to regulate the Internet outside the country’s borders, since it could apply to almost anyone in the world who uses the Internet. In August the Pakistani parliament easily passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) which applies to Pakistani citizens anywhere in the world, and even to any online content that affects someone or something in Pakistan - no matter who posts it. The PECA could also be used to criminalize an ocean of content. Sold to the public as an anti-terrorism tool, it defines cyberterrorism and hate speech so broadly that it authorizes the government to crack down on legitimate speech such as dissent or protest by minority groups.

The law passed unanimously in Pakistan’s Senate since anti-terrorist efforts are badly needed; the country is both the home of numerous terrorist organizations and the target of vicious terrorist attacks. Perhaps the most devastating example is the December 16th, 2014 Taliban attack on a Pakistan Army-run school in Peshawar. Seven armed men killed 144 people, including 132 children, shocking a country sadly accustomed to attacks, and impelling the government to act.

This law is particularly worrisome, though, as Pakistan has a long history of unjustly stifling speech. It completely banned YouTube for more than three years, after the Innocence of Muslims video surfaced on YouTube in 2012, and the country’s draconian blasphemy law provides the death penalty for remarks that ostensibly insult Islam. Occasionally the government has gone so far that it later backed down. In 2011, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) tried to order telecoms to censor over 1,500 words in English and Urdu that it deemed offensive - a mystifying list including ‘tongue,’ ‘flatulence,’ ‘Budweiser,’ “breast,’ ‘sexy,’ ‘herpes,’ ‘premature,’ and ‘Jesus Christ.’ Under incredulous criticism, the PTA withdrew the list. But the PECA law is firmly in place despite vigorous criticism by civil society groups like the Digital Rights Foundation.

Section 10-A of the law makes hate speech a crime punishable by as much as seven years in prison, defining it very broadly as any information that “advances or is likely to advance” inter-group hatred. The law also gives the government vast, unfettered power to remove or block online content in order to protect “the glory of Islam,” and “public order, decency or morality.”

In attempting to restrict speech outside Pakistan, the law states that it: “[...] shall apply to every citizen of Pakistan wherever he may be and also to every other person for the time being in Pakistan,” and, “It shall also apply to any act committed outside Pakistan by any person if the act constitutes an offence under this Act and affects a person, property, information system or data location in Pakistan.” This places both overseas Pakistanis and even non-Pakistanis at risk of prosecution, especially if they are deemed to be criticizing the government or Islam.

Hate speech and Dangerous Speech are both prevalent in Pakistan, both online and offline. Vigilante mobs have beaten up and even murdered members of minority groups and those accused of blasphemy. For example, the Ahmadis, a minority religious group in Pakistan, have been labeled apostates by Pakistani Muslim religious leaders for decades, and in that time they have been the target of frequent attacks. In 2015, shopkeepers at a major shopping center in Lahore posted signs in their windows that told Ahmadis to keep out, and that they were not allowed in the shopping center.

In one of the most notable cases of dangerous speech contributing to violence, religious leaders accused the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, of blasphemy after he visited and advocated on behalf of a Christian woman who was in prison for blasphemy and suggested that the blasphemy law be amended. He was then assassinated on January 4th, 2011 by Mumtaz Qadri, one of his own bodyguards, who later said he was inspired by the clerics’ speech. Qadri was prosecuted and eventually executed, but thousands of Pakistanis celebrated him, both offline and online. The Pakistani digital landscape is also increasingly populated by pages targeting ethnic and religious minorities.

Pakistan is rife with Dangerous Speech, in other words, but its new cybercrime law may well do more harm than good. Its broad language together with the government’s history of restricting legitimate speech makes it likely that this law will be abused. If what constitutes unacceptable speech is muddied, freedom of speech is in danger but dangerous speech may not be.

In a time of conflict and unrest it is understandable that governments take steps to protect their people, but they must do so while respecting the civil liberties of their citizens. The Internet, once heralded as a utopia for freedom of expression, is instead being subverted by governments around the world to restrict that very right. Pakistan, in the face of terrorism and Dangerous Speech, has unfortunately joined that alarming movement.