The Islamabad High Court (IHC) suspended Section 20 of
the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) Ordinance 2022 on Wednesday,
saying individuals cannot be arrested by the government under the said section
of the law.

Before the ordinance came into effect,
Section 20 that pertained to registration on complaints against individuals by
aggrieved parties over defamation was a bailable and non-criminal offence.
However, the ordinance made the offence criminal and extended the sentence to
five years instead of three years.

During a hearing of the pleas filed against
the newly-promulgated ordinance, the high court said the government cannot
implement the particular section without ensuring guarantees under Article 19
of the Constitution.

It also directed the attorney general to
appear in the court on Thursday and also sought a detailed record from the
Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). The high court said the director general of
the FIA and the interior secretary would be held accountable if the agency
violated its SOPs submitted to the court.

The IHC also clubbed all pleas filed against
the PECA Ordinance into a single petition.

On Sunday, President Dr Arif Alvi had promulgated the ordinance to
amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) increasing the jail
term for defaming any person or institution from three years to five years by
making a change in Section 20 of the law.

Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes
(Amendment) Ordinance, 2022, which came “into force at once”, online
public defamation had also been made a cognisable and a non-bailable offence.

The complainant has been defined as the
aggrieved person, their authorised representative, their guardian in case they
were a minor or “a member of the public in respect of a public figure or a
holder of public office”.

The definition of a “person” has
been expanded to include any “company, association or body of people whether
incorporated or not, institution, organisation, authority or any other body set
up by the government under any law or otherwise”.

The complainant can now seek defamation and
criminal proceedings against the accused as it has now become a cognisable

A new section has been inserted in the Act
under which a timeline has been given to courts to dispose of a case.

“The trial shall be concluded
expeditiously, but preferably not later than six months of taking cognisance of
the case,” it read.

Criticism against the law

A day after, major opposition parties – PPP
and PML-N – had announced that they would
challenge the PECA ordinance at every forum, saying the law was an attempt to
clamp down on dissent and an aim to silence the opposition, media, civil
society and to prevent criticism on government policies frequently debated on
social media platforms.

Similarly, the superior bar councils, apex
media bodies and rights groups also assailed the new law, calling it
an attempt to gag press freedom. The law was also challenged in the Lahore High
Court and the Islamabad High Court on Tuesday.


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