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EDITORIAL: For the prime minister, and therefore the entire government machinery, to continue to insist that Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) Amendment Ordinance 2022 has nothing to do with freedom of expression or of the press betrays a divorce from reality that is becoming worrying. The latest justification for it that it’s meant to tackle “the filth of child pornography and women harassment on social media” is clearly a delayed exercise in damage control because it was not mentioned earlier.

And the fact - cited by the PM - that of “more than 94,000 cases related to women harassment, fake news and pictures pending with the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency)… only 38 have been disposed so far” only strengthens the argument that the problem lies in weakness of the system to implement existing laws, which is what should occupy the government’s attention.

Giving PECA more teeth instead not only flies in the face of the PM’s own very strong criticism of the Act, when he was in opposition, but also makes it very difficult to defend his claim that “a leader who does not commit corruption and violate laws will never be afraid of free media”.

That he said this in defence of the PECA amendment, which has been rejected by media platforms, bar councils and even human rights organisations, only weakens his government’s position on the matter even further. Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah has even described it as a “draconian law” on the record.

The criticism against the ordinance is in no way meant to condone so-called fake news or any sort of online harassment or blackmail. There are, indeed, laws in place to deal with all such things. But Pakistan’s legal system is badly broken, which means justice is almost always delayed even when it is delivered.

And the PECA amendments could well have had some legs to stand on if only the government had first at least attempted to reform the existing system, which it did not. Rather it has, for all intents and purposes, opted for the most convenient way of crushing dissent when it is coming under fire for failed policies as the general election is drawing near and it can neither tolerate the criticism nor take the heat.

It would have been better, therefore, to read the writing on the wall and roll back the amendments. Yet the PM still wants to take the line that only he is right and everybody else is wrong, even as cases pile up in courts against the ordinance and PML-N has called for a joint session of parliament to have it revoked.

That the government bypassed the house through a presidential ordinance is also, quite naturally, drawing opposition fire for subverting the proper legislative process only to teach anybody who questions the PM or his policies a very harsh lesson.

PTI should be careful lest its authoritarian streak backfires and forces a far more embarrassing retreat later. The more time the ruling party wastes in accepting that this initiative is not going to work, the closer the election will come, and the more egg it risks having on its face if things done exactly pan out the way it wishes, rather needs.

On top of everything else, unilateral steps like the PECA amendment ordinance also contribute to the government losing the battle of narratives. Right now, the opposition’s argument that it was done because the government was desperate to put a lid on the criticism its policies were drawing, by any means necessary, makes a lot more sense than the PM’s claim that the amendments are targeted towards child pornography and women harassment. Hopefully, good sense will still prevail and regressive legislation, done in a less than ideal way, will be scrapped before it wastes more time and does more harm.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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