The Islamabad High Court (IHC) ruled on Friday that revisions to the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) made by an ordinance enacted in February this year were “unconstitutional.”
The verdict was issued by IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah during a hearing on petitions brought by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and other media organisations against the PECA law.
Section 20 of the PECA statute was deemed “null and void” by Justice Minallah in a four-page order.
The IHC has also ordered a probe into the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) abuse of power under the PECA law, and the interior secretary has been required to provide a report in this regard within 30 days.
The court ruled that the cases filed under Section 20 of the PECA had been dismissed.
PFUJ plans a ‘Black Day’ against the PECA Ordinance on February 28.
According to the IHC, the government is expected to revise defamation regulations because freedom of expression is one of the essential rights.
“Access to information and the freedom to express opinions are essential for a thriving society,” the judgement stated, adding that efforts to undermine these rights were counter to the democratic spirit and the Constitution.
The interior secretary was required to begin an investigation into the conduct of the FIA’s cybercrime personnel due to the government agency’s pervasive abuse of authority.
It went on to say that the PECA ordinance violated Articles 9, 14, 19, and 19-A of the Constitution.
“The Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022, and its promulgation are declared illegal, invalid beyond reasonable doubt, and it is thus stricken down,” the judgement stated.
“The crime under section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 to the extent of the words “or affects the reputation” and the punishment therefor are unconstitutional, invalid beyond reasonable doubt, and are thus struck down,” it added.
The court further determined that the proceedings against the petitioners in the related petitions are therefore null and void. “However, aggrieved complainants would be free to pursue the remedies available under the relevant statutes in the context of defamation.”
The court expects the federal government to evaluate defamation laws, particularly the Defamation Ordinance, 2002, and then propose suitable legislation to parliament to ensure their effective implementation.
Read MQM-P leader advises PM Imran to abandon the notion of changing the PECA.
The judgement was applauded by the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE). According to CPNE President Kazim Khan, constitutional supremacy requires an independent judiciary.
President Dr Arif Alvi issued the PECA law in February of this year, making online public defamation a cognisable and non-bailable offence, as well as increasing the jail penalty for defaming any person or organisation from three to five years.
Section 20, which pertains to the registration of complaints against individuals by aggrieved parties over defamation, was a bailable and non-criminal offence prior to the ordinance’s implementation.
The judge chastised FIA Cyber Crime Wing Director General Babar Bakht Qureshi for monitoring journalists, expressing his unhappiness.
“Does the FIA have any responsibility to monitor journalists?”
The FIA officers presented the court with a report on its directives at the start of the session. The top justice of the International Court of Justice stated that someone must be held accountable for violations of basic human rights. The FIA had provided standard operating procedures (SOPs) to the court, but they were also disregarded, according to the court.
The IHC observed that the department had incorporated PECA sections in different complaints despite the fact that they were not applicable in those cases.
The DG of the FIA Cyber Crime Wing said that a statute had been drafted and that the department was under enormous pressure to put it into effect.
According to Justice Minallah, a case was filed against an individual in Islamabad, they were arrested in Lahore, and the raid was carried out in the federal capital. He went on to say that the local cops were equally to blame in this situation.
“Have you ever done something similar for a simple man?” If you had, the court would have sided with you in this instance.”
According to the FIA official, in other cases, the department arrested the accused prior to the filing of the first information report (FIR), and the charges were filed after they were recovered.
Justice Minallah expressed his displeasure with this behaviour and inquired as to what law the FIA could use to arrest someone in this fashion. “The FIA even has no regrets about its practise and continues to make arguments in its favour,” the court remarked.
After hearing the arguments, the court deferred its decision and later dismissed the PECA revisions. The court stated that freedom of expression was a fundamental human right and that access to knowledge was essential for a society’s prosperity.