Petition challenges Pakistan’s censorship in court


Journalist Azaz Syed said that reporters are being told to self-censor.

Journalist Azaz Syed said that reporters are being told to self-censor. (Photo: YouTube)

Nine Pakistani citizens have filed a constitutional petition in Pakistan’s Sindh High Court in response to recent harassment and arrests of journalists and activists. The petition was filed Monday 5 June, naming the Federation of Pakistan and Federal Investigation Agency as respondents.

The petitioners, who are journalists and activists, include Farieha Aziz. Aziz is the director of Bolo Bhi, a Pakistani nonprofit that promotes digital freedom and gender rights through advocacy and research, though the group was not part of the petition. Bolo Bhi won Index on Censorship’s 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award.

“We’ve approached court because as citizens we believe the government has acted unlawfully and its actions are creating an environment of fear, in turn causing a chilling effect on speech,” Aziz told Index. “As citizens and professionals we believe we must collect to take such initiatives in the interest of democracy and to ensure that rule of law is upheld.”

The petitioners are responding to government actions that they claim have a “chilling effect on freedom of speech”. Pakistan’s government has been using cyber crime laws to crackdown on activists who criticise the military. On 10 May, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority texted citizens a message cautioning against blasphemous online content and suggesting that they report any such content. Pakistan’s cyber crime laws allow the government to censor material online. This followed an order in March from the Islamabad High Court to remove blasphemous material from all websites, even if that meant blocking those websites.

Pakistan has become an increasingly hostile environment for journalists and critics of government actions. In January, five prominent online critics of Pakistan’s military went missing within a few days of each other, and their websites were immediately blocked. Last week, Geo news journalist Azaz Syed escaped an attempted kidnapping in Islamabad, and the perpetrators have not yet been identified. Another journalist from Geo TV, Hamid Mir, was seriously wounded in a gun attack last year.

This is not the first time Syed has been confronted with threats and attacks because of his work. In 2010 he received threatening phone calls and his home was attacked, and although he was able to name his assailants the police have yet to lodge an official complaint. This time, Syed has avoided naming his attackers as he fears for the security of his family.

Syed describes the changing environment for journalists as moving away from physical attacks. News organisations are encouraging journalists not to anger those in power, even pushing them to avoid posting on social media. According to Syed, only those who do not listen and continue to post are at risk of physical attack. “This is happening because the culprits involved in attacking the journalists never face the long arm of law,” Syed told Index. “Everything ultimately goes to the imbalance of civil-military relations in the country.”

On 14 May, the minister of the interior ordered the FIA to take action against individuals suspected of carrying out anti-military campaigns online. The FIA has continued to detain people suspected of participating in this type of campaign.

Activist Adnan Afzal Qureshi was arrested by FIA on 31 May for “anti-military tweets” and “abusive language against military personnel and political leaders,” according to the FIA. He was charged under sections of the law relating to “offence against the dignity of a natural person” and “cyberstalking”.

The FIA has sent notices to other activists instructing them to report to the counter-terrorism wing of the police station. The notices do not include any suspected offences, or the type of information FIA is seeking.

The petitioners called the government and the FIA’s actions violations of due process. In their statement, they condemn the government’s actions as “coercive acts to intimidate, harass and threaten not just targeted individuals but citizens at large,” which they accuse of attempting to inhibit the public’s exercise of rights.

The respondents were instructed to file a response by 15 June, which was later adjourned to 25 June.

In another development, an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan sentenced Taimoor Raza to death on 11 June for committing blasphemy in a Facebook post. His offence consisted of disparaging the Prophet Muhammad and other religious figures.The exact contents of the post have not been released, but Raza was arrested following a debate about Islam on Facebook with a counter-terrorism agent last year. He was charged with the maximum sentence under laws punishing derogatory remarks about religious figures, and a law concerning derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad. This is the first death sentence for a social media post in Pakistan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1497944568388-6fea101c-dfb2-3″ taxonomies=”23″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content_no_spaces” content_placement=”middle”][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”91122″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=””][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Bolo Bhi: Still much work to be done to oppose Pakistan’s Cyber Crimes Bill


Farieha Aziz, director of 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award winner Bolo Bhi (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

It has been eight months since the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), also known as the cyber crimes bill, was passed and enacted in Pakistan. The law, which has been in place since August 2016, is meant to limit the amount of hate speech online and protect internet users against malicious cyber crimes, however, many are concerned that it has not followed up on these promises.

Bolo Bhi, a non-profit organisation and activist group and winners of the 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Campaigning, has been vehemently opposed to PECA from the beginning because of its potential human rights violations and threats to the right to privacy and freedom of expression as the law would allow more unchecked government power and internet regulation.

Farieha Aziz, the director of Bolo Bhi, told Index on Censorship that there are simply not enough rules, oversight, and public awareness for the law to truly be effective in preventing cyber crime.

“If the government was really serious about the implementation of the law for the protection of the people, eight months on, where are the rules? Courts? Capacity of the Federal Investigation Agency, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, prosecutors and courts to deal with cases?” Aziz said. “Why the deafening silence on this both the government and the opposition?”

Aziz said that government critics and other dissenters have been silenced as a result of the law, but the government has yet to make any effective moves against real malicious threats. She noted that the Khabaristan Times, a satirical media organisation, was recently blocked online under Section 38 of PECA which allows the government to remove and censor any “objectionable content”.

“This essentially stems from a failure to still grasp how the internet and technology function, and where and how the law can or cannot be applied,” Aziz said.

Bolo Bhi has published a document on its website titled “Recommendations for Implementation and Oversight” to solve the numerous problems regarding effective and fair enforcement of PECA.

One of the main problems, Bolo Bhi noted, is confusion and lack of clarity among the public of PECA’s rules and regulations.

“Social perceptions of what constitutes stalking, harassment, bullying, etc. and the legal definitions of these as well as what constitutes a crime under law can be very different,” Bolo Bhi said in the document.

In order to combat this, Bolo Bhi recommended increasing public awareness through various resources including public service messages and helpline numbers. Bolo Bhi also suggested the creation of an online complaint facility and a more transparent case management and tracking system that would be available to the public.

Another problem with effective enforcement of PECA includes a lack of financial resources and qualified professionals for online surveillance and responding to cases.

The PTA, one of the most prominent government agencies involved with the implementation of PECA, told the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology on the 5th of April that they do not have enough resources to properly manage and surveil all online content. Instead, the PTA suggested, the government should build closer relationships with social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter to help find and block and unacceptable or blasphemous content.

Bolo Bhi, however, suggested that the government itself should be held responsible for increasing the amount of trained investigation officers and state prosecutors who can properly handle an increasing caseload. If there is more legal and technical training for judicial officers, Bolo Bhi said, then cyber crimes can be dealt with more quickly and efficiently. Bolo Bhi also recommended increasing the number of third-party forensic labs in order to avoid further backlogging of cases.

Despite PECA’s lack of progress in creating a safe and sustainable internet for Pakistan, Bolo Bhi continues to fight on for fair and effective implementation of the Cybercrimes law.

“The law alone is no solution,” Bolo Bhi said. “Awareness of its existence, knowledge of the procedures, willingness to use it and them proper implementation for deliverance of justice that is tied with our criminal justice system and courts are all components of this, which need to be addressed simultaneously.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1492103286683-011373cf-290a-6″ taxonomies=”8093″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Bolo Bhi will continue to fight Pakistan’s cyber crimes law

Farieha Aziz, director of 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award winner Bolo Bhi (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

Farieha Aziz, director of 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award winner Bolo Bhi (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, better known as the cyber crimes bill, has severe implications for freedom of expression and the right to access information in the country.

After a lengthy process, the bill was signed into law on 22 August 2016. Bolo Bhi, the Pakistani non-profit promoting digital freedoms and winner of the 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award for campaigning, has been fighting the bill through all it’s stages and will continue to do so even now it has been approved.

“We are looking at what will be the right approach and the current debate is whether we jump to court and challenge it on constitutional grounds or wait for there to be an executive review and then build a case around it,” Farieha Aziz, director of Bolo Bhi, told Index on Censorship.

Bolo Bhi has reached out to other organisations and individuals, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and several lawyers, during its campaign against the bill, and if legal action is to be taken it will be a class action involving all of all of these parties.

“We’ve gotten some of the best constitutional minds in the country to start looking at the law and where we go from here,” Aziz said.

Such action would be costly and, as pro bono doesn’t always guarantee success, the group have begun reaching out to people who may be able to provide support.

At this early stage amendments to the bill won’t be possible. “So we want to build pressure through public dialogue in terms of what’s wrong with the bill and what needs to be fixed,” Aziz said. “We will also raise awareness of how this law can be used against various communities.”

Pakistan has a large youth population – they very people having most conversations online – and they need to know how the bill will impact them, Aziz explained, so Bolo Bhi has been doing a lot of work with students. “We want to see the youth take ownership of this issue and see that discussion around such laws should not be relegated to the legal fraternity or the legislature.”

In terms of building pressure, the movement needs that student community voice. “It’s something we can’t leave untapped,” said Aziz.

Fighting the bill took up a lot of Bolo Bhi’s time over the past year and the organisation doesn’t currently have a staff beyond Aziz and fellow director Sana Saleem, nor an office in which to work from.

But fortunes may be changing. As Index spoke with Aziz, a possible fund to cover operational costs and salaries for a year was on the cards for Bolo Bhi. The organisation has always been small and even with this funding it would remain so, allowing it to stay focused on certain issues.

“And maybe in the next month or two we will even have an operational office again,” Aziz added.

With this in mind, Aziz is hopeful that Bolo Bhi will be send more time on its gender work. “We’re members of the Women’s Action Forum and with the recent passing of the anti-domestic violence bill there’s been a lot of discussion on the provincial protection of women, so that’s something we are focusing on,” she said.

On a case-by-case basis, a lot of victims and survivors of abuse get in touch with the network. “Just yesterday we spoke to a young girl who was forcibly married at 15, is now divorced with a young child and is being harassed by her own family,” Aziz explained. “We’re now trying to get protection and see what legal proceedings are necessary.”

This is just some of the work that goes on on the side and is what Aziz hopes she can do more of in future.

As always, the main challenge is funding.

“While it’s important for us to keep on top of the issues, at the same time we’re trying to get enough support to keep us afloat.”

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Nominations are now open for 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards. You can make yours here

Winners of the 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards: from left, Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi (campaigning), Serge Bambara -- aka "Smockey" (Music in Exile), Murad Subay (arts), Zaina Erhaim (journalism). GreatFire (digital activism), not pictured, is an anonymous collective. Photo: Sean Gallagher for Index on Censorship

Pakistan passes Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill: “The youth of this country is losing hope”

Farieha Aziz, director of 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award winner Bolo Bhi (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

Farieha Aziz, director of 2016 Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award winner Bolo Bhi (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a controversial Prevention of Electronics Crimes Bill on Thursday 11 August. The bill will permit the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to manage, remove or block content on the internet.

Many critics say the bill is too overarching and punishments too severe. It also leaves children as young as 10 liable for punishment.

Farieha Aziz, director of Index-award winning Bolo Bhi, the Pakistani non-profit fighting for internet freedom, has been campaigning against the bill for over a year. Last month, Aziz told Index: “It’s part of a regressive trend we are seeing the world over: there is shrinking space for openness, a lot of privacy intrusion and limits to free speech.”

Last week, Aziz was selected by the Young Parliamentarians Forum – a bi-partisan forum with representation from all political parties – as one of the 10 Youth Champions of Pakistan. Yesterday – the day before the bill passed – each recipient was given three minutes to speak to the speaker of the National Assembly, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, and other parliamentarians.

Yesterday, Aziz used her three minutes to criticise the bill based on the below letter to members of YPF. She emailed a similar letter to Ayaz Sadiq, who left before she gave her speech.

Dear Members of YPF,

Thank you for nominating and selecting me as one of the 10 youth champions of Pakistan.

I stand before you today apparently in recognition of efforts made to secure the rights of Internet users. I regret though that this is no moment for personal recognition or glory, not when the future of the youth of Pakistan stands threatened. What is that threat? The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, which is on today’s orders of the day of the National Assembly, set to receive the approval of parliament and become law.

For over a year, not just I, but many citizens and professionals fought long and hard to fix this bill. We engaged with the government and opposition. Provided input to make the law better. We never said there shouldn’t be a law but that the law needed to respect fundamental rights and due process. While we found many allies among you – parliamentarians without whose efforts it would have been an even more difficult struggle – there were many part of the same system who labelled us as agents and propagandists.

On one occasion, the doors of parliament house were shut upon us. Stack loads of written input was disregarded and we were told we were just noise-makers who’d given nothing at all.

How I wish the certificate awarded today was actually a significantly amended version of the bill. A bill that did not trample on the rights of citizens. A bill that factored in the input we’d provided. I have come here today not for the certificate, but to ask you, if you will commit to the youth of this country beyond certificates?

The youth of this country is losing hope. I come to ask you if you will do all that is in your power to do, to restore it. If you want to give the youth of this country hope, then do not dismiss them. Do not stick labels. Do not isolate them. They don’t need certificates to give them hope. They need to see that things will be done differently – that their input will be considered and that you will constructively engage with them. That you will enter questions, and motions and resolutions on vital issues that concern citizens. That you will wage a struggle within your parties to make them see differently on issues. And that you will use your vote when it counts, and block legislation that seeks to take away our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights.

If the bill is passed today, in its current form, the message that will go out to the youth of Pakistan is that there is no room or tolerance for thinking minds and dissenting voices. Should the youth inquire and raise questions, a harsh fine and long jail term awaits them. Is this the future you want to give the youth of Pakistan? If not, then when you go to the National Assembly today at 3pm, stop the bill from becoming law. Allow time to fix it.

Show the youth of this country that not only will you recognize efforts outside parliament; but that you will also honour these efforts by casting your vote to protect their rights inside parliament too. If you do this, that would be true recognition.

Thank you.

Farieha Aziz

Concerned citizen, digital rights activist and journalist