Bolo Bhi: Pakistan’s cyber crimes bill needs major changes

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)

The cyber crimes bill passed by Pakistan’s lower legislative chamber is unacceptable and needs major changes, Bolo Bhi told Index on Censorship.

Fareiah Aziz, director of Bolo Bhi, said the group is ready to pick up the fight against the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which was passed by Pakistan’s National Assembly on Wednesday 13 April. The bill must now be approved by the senate.

“We need the senate to change the bill significantly, if not completely,” Aziz said. “A few amendments are not going to be enough.”

Aziz was in London for the Index on Censorship 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards, where she accepted the Campaigning Award on behalf of Bolo Bhi.

The bill, which stems from the 20-point National Action Plan against terrorism prime minister Nawaz Sharif announced after the Peshawar attack and was presented to the national assembly by an expert committee established by the standing committee for IT, has caused uproar in civil society for its restrictions of human rights and free speech.

According to Bolo Bhi, some of the major concerns are the criminalisation of political criticism and political expression; the overreaching and discretionary powers given to the media regulator; the harsh punishments and fines for hate speech; and the lack of protection for journalists and of adequately set procedures.

Additionally, the group has also lamented a critical lack of transparency in the drafting process, claiming the government deliberately avoided making the proposed text available to the public.

According to Dawn, the bill also shows a critical lack of IT expertise.

Aziz told Index on Censorship that Bolo Bhi expected the bill to be approved by the national assembly, and has been lobbying the senate since August 2015.

“We already have commitments from senators, including the chairman, who said very publicly in one of the sessions that this bill is not going to pass in its current version.”

“The senate is more balanced, and the opposition has the majority, whereas the government has a 2/3 majority in the national assembly,” she said.

However, Aziz warned the greatest risk is that senators settle for a few amendments to the bill instead of changing everything that needs changing.

“It’s the oldest trick in the book,” she said. “Make changes here and there, accept a few amendments, and then say that you’ve done what you could do. But that’s not going to be enough.

“We’ve seen this before with the introduction of military courts and the Protection of Pakistan Bill 2014. There was always an outcry by opposition parties, especially about the Protection of Pakistan Bill, but then they settled for a few amendments and all went through.”

Aziz said Bolo Bhi is already working to organise public and academic debate around the bill, and to make sure the senate has a clause by clause discussion.

Bolo Bhi, which means “speak up” in urdu, has been fighting the bill for over a year. They have been lobbying with members of the opposition and other organisations against the bill since then, shedding light on the legislation, organising public debates and creating a timeline tracking cybercrime legislation with information on every development.

Salient features of bill, according to Dawn:

  • Up to five year imprisonment, $95.000 fine or both for hate speech, or trying to create disputes and spread hatred on the basis of religion or sectarianism.
  • Up to five year imprisonment, $48.000 fine or both for transferring or copying of sensitive basic information.
  • Up to $480 fine for sending messages irritating to others or for marketing purposes. If the crime is repeated, the punishment would be three months imprisonment and a fine of up to $9.500.
  • Up to three year imprisonment and a fine of up to £4.800  for creating a website for negative purposes.
  • Up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to $9.500 for forcing an individual for immoral activity, or publishing an individual’s picture without consent, sending obscene messages or unnecessary cyber interference.
  • Up to seven year imprisonment, a fine of $95.000 or both for interfering in sensitive data information systems.
  • Three month imprisonment or a $480 fine or both for accessing unauthorised data.
  • Three year imprisonment and a fine of up to $48.000 for obtaining information about an individual’s identification, selling the information or retaining it with self.
  • Up to three year imprisonment and a fine of up to $4.800 for issuing a sim card in an unauthorised manner.
  • Up to three year imprisonment and fine of up to $9.500 for making changes in a wireless set or a cell phone.
  • Up to three year imprisonment and a fine of up to $9.500 for spreading misinformation about an individual.

Pakistan: Between a “cultural coup” and giving “peace another chance”

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addresses the opening ceremony of the Sindh Festival on 1 February (Photo: Jamal Dawoodpoto / Demotix)

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addresses the opening ceremony of the Sindh Festival on 1 February (Photo: Jamal Dawoodpoto / Demotix)

Hoping to use culture to battle Pakistan’s slide into “Talibanisation”, the son of Benazir Bhutto kicked off a two-week-long arts festival on 1 February to offer an alternative to what is perceived here as dithering by prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who announced he was giving “peace another chance”.

After a spate of violent attacks in January, Pakistanis assumed Sharif would crack down on the Taliban with an iron fist. However, in a speech on 29 January, Sharif opted to promote talks instead. Critics immediately pointed out the repeated violations of peace accords signed by the Taliban.

Finding it a “characteristic feature” of Pakistani politics on matters of national security, Ambreen Agha, a research assistant with New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management said: “Mr Sharif finds it convenient to keep the nation busy with his idle pursuit of rhetoric, with nothing concrete being done.”

Among the many who are tired of hearing about the peace talks with the Taliban is 25-year old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — the son of the assassinated former prime minister — who believes Pakistan has “exhausted the option of talks”, arguing that the militants need to be beaten “on the battlefield”. He recently put forth his point of view to BBC’s Lyce Doucet.

Despite threats from the Taliban and other armed groups, Zardari, who is also the chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has begun waging a war of words against them where others have been silenced. He has urged politicians to “wake up” to the looming threat and unite against the Taliban.

“Though Bilawal’s idea of political will sounds positive, I doubt that this idea is there to stay,” said Agha and added: “Like many of his predecessors he is susceptible to fall on the same track of delays and betrayals. But, if he is willing to take the bull by the horns, which in my opinion is not even a rudimentary possibility, he needs the much called for political will.”

Zardari is spearheading the cultural festival. In a televised advertisement, in which he is seen as a head of state addressing a nation, he is declaring a “cultural coup” to fight the threat posed by the Taliban to Pakistan’s civilisation. The opening ceremony extravaganza that started with a light and music show at one of world’s ancient ruins of Mohenjo Daro — much to the disapproval of conservationists — included  kite-flying, donkey cart races, cricket matches, fashion shows, theatre, music and literature.

But many in Pakistan refuse to take him seriously. He is often scoffed at for his anglicised Urdu accent, his exile in Dubai and London and his English education. Critics believe his sudden passion for reviving Sindh’s culture is misplaced.

Agha finds him “distanced from his own society, standing on a pedestal too high to be reached”.

“Of course there is a lot of criticism of him and many consider him out of touch of with reality,” agreed Islamabad-based independent journalist, Taha Siddiqui, but added: “His coming back and making this effort…it’s commendable…”

Siddiqui has been travelling the length and breadth of Pakistan for the last several years and has seen the “creeping radicalisation and religious extremism” in not just Sindh but all over the country.

While he believes the festival such as the one organised by Zardari will be a small step, more needs to be done to stem rising extremism, like revamping of school curriculum, checks and balances on religious seminaries, and for the state to clearly label the Taliban as the enemy which it has so far been unable to do.

“Unless all of these and such other measures are taken together, we will see Pakistan moving further down the trap of Talibanisation,” Siddiqui concluded.

Conceding to a need for a more holistic approach to fight Talibanisation, Agha said that while the cultural synthesis may rejuvenate the lost cultural ethos and values of Sindh, the PPP chairperson will have to “penetrate deeper into the layers of Pakistani society and address the issues that bind the people culturally.”

This article was posted on 3 Feb 2014 at