Crackdown on dissent: 2 dozen Pak journalists prosecuted under PECA in 2 years

Umar Cheema
Tuesday, Nov 02, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Around two dozen journalists were charged in the last two years and most of them were prosecuted under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, said a report of the Freedom Network, launched on the eve of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

Section 20, which criminalises online defamation, and carries a three-year jail term, and up to one million rupees in fine, is the most frequently invoked section of the PECA against journalists.

“Opinions or criticism of the military and the intelligence agencies is the most frequent complaint against journalists pursued under the PECA. Criticism in general – whether against the executive (both civilian and military) or the judiciary triggered the most complaints against journalists pursued under the PECA law. The prime nature of the complaint was alleged defamation,” it reads. Majority of the journalists were from Punjab.

Iqbal Khattak, the executive director of Freedom Network, said Pakistani journalists are increasingly using online spaces to share independent news and critical commentary that are suppressed on traditional media. “We have noticed a corresponding increase in efforts to control online expression, either legally or through coordinated digital campaigns against journalists,” he said. The report supplies evidence that the PECA has emerged as the primary legal instrument to intimidate and silence Pakistani journalists in recent years because it criminalises online expression.

The report’s findings are based on the analysis of cases of 23 journalists and information practitioners who were either sent notices by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) under PECA or charged with offences under the same law during the period 2019-21. The analysis was done on data, provided by these journalists and information practitioners through a special impunity measurement template, based on the comprehensive Impunity Index developed by the Freedom Network.

The analysis found that the cases were registered against 56pc of journalists and informational practitioners who had a brush with the PECA between 2019 and 2012. Out of the individuals who were formally charged, around 70pc were arrested and half of them were subjected to torture in custody. The Freedom Network 2021 Impunity Report provides insights about the challenges faced by journalists and information practitioners in Pakistan charged under the PECA, the arbitrary exercise of power by the authorities and the response of the justice system.

Key findings suggest that Punjab has turned out to be the most dangerous region for journalists when it comes to being targeted under the PECA as 10 of the 23 reported cases were from Punjab; Islamabad followed with eight cases. As far as the complainants are concerned, two thirds of them are private citizens whereas opinions or criticism of the military and the intelligence agencies is the most frequent complaint pursued under the PECA.

Nearly half of all journalists formally charged under PECA law as well as under other laws were arrested; two-thirds of all the arrested journalists managed to secure bail after their arrest but some had to spend time in custody ranging from a few days to some weeks. Journalists working for formal media or as freelancers are almost equally likely to be targeted under the PECA; over a third of the freelancers targeted operate their own YouTube channels.

Over half of journalists served notices by the FIA under PECA did not approach the courts to challenge them and therefore are denied legal recourse to justice. Around a third of the journalists invoked the legal process to resist the FIA notices. Most complainants against journalists charged under the PECA sought punishment rather than settlement. Around 40pc of the complainants against journalists charged under the PECA sought written and published apologies.