'Despite Senate's amendments PECB continues to threaten fundamental rights'

Islamabad: Digitial rights groups in Pakistan say that amendments proposed by Senate’s Standing Committee on IT and Telecommunications have failed to address key concerns regarding human rights violations raised by various civil society stakeholders. Civil Rights organisations that engaged with the senate committee on the matter, express concerns about the draft of Pakistan Electronic Crime Bill,2016, approved by the Senate Standing Committee on IT and Telecommunication.

Civil rights and industry stakeholders have engaged with the legislators since mid 2015, when this bill was first tabled in the National Assembly. Stakeholders have provided detailed inputs and recommendations, highlighting the potential human rights violations and suggesting alternates in line with constitutional provisions and international best practices. However, the Ministry of IT, has repeatedly dismissed these concerns.

The continued engagement with the civil society and other stakeholders has been possible due to the involvement of some parliamentarians, to whom we remain grateful. However, the most recent set of amendments is disheartening, as it continues to ignore the fundamental concerns raised during the consultations. We feel that the engagement and handwork of the stakeholders is being set aside to push through a law that is contradictory to constitutional rights, international best practices and lacks adequate safeguards and oversight to protect the citizens of Pakistan.

On the contrary, newer and harsher amendments have been added in the approved version. We are particularly concerned by the continued inclusion of Section 34, the dilution of real time surveillance processes that contradicts the process defined in Investigation for Fair Trial Act, the subjective description of hate speech and inclusion of an amendment that allows unfettered power to the Federal Investigation Agency, to generate and submit forensic evidence, instead of relying on an independent body as earlier recommended.

Groups like Digital Rights Foundation, Bolo Bhi, Bytes For all, Media Matters for Democracy, Freedom Network, IRADA, Courting The Law, NexDegree (Private) Ltd, Never Forget Pakistan and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan pointed out that all the meetings outlined by the committee, along with their given deadlines, were honoured by the civil society.

"We are deeply disturbed and alarmed that despite our best efforts the bill continues to incorporate provisions that pose a threat to our fundamental rights," the joint press release read.

"If passed in its current form the bill would be detrimental to civil liberties in Pakistan. It will allow unfettered power to law enforcement agencies and an executive authority to crackdown and criminalize free speech online.

"As this approved version goes to the Senate for discussion, we urge Senators to stand up for our civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan and take into consider the amendments suggested by the relevant stakeholders, for the sake of continuation of the democratic process."

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