Pakistan’s parliament has passed a controversial cyber crimes bill that gives authorities sweeping powers to tackle offences but has been criticised by the opposition, which believes it could be used to punish critics of the government.
The bill was passed by the National Assembly or lower house on Wednesday and will now be debated in the Senate or upper house.
Opposition members have said the bill is vague in its definition of terms and will be used by law enforcement agencies to punish those who criticise the government or the armed forces.
One of the clauses empowers the government to remove, block or issue directions for access to any information perceived to be against public order, decency, morality, the glory of Islam, or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan.
“This is a vague area when we start to define what is public order, decency or morality, and can be used to clamp down on any party or group that criticises the government,” said lawmaker Arif Alvi.
Alvi objected to several clauses but the treasury benches chose to ignore most in a House that had barely 30 of its more than 300 members present.
“It is a shame that such an important bill was not debated and passed with little interest,” said Farieha Aziz, a cyber rights activist who works with the NGO Bolo Bhi.
The bill proposes rigorous penalties for creating fear or panic and stoking sectarian discord. It exempts children less than 14 years of age from such offences.
Minister of state for IT Anusha Rehman, the force behind the bill, has been accused by civil society activists of succumbing to pressure from intelligence agencies. Journalist Abid Hussain said many controversial clauses were introduced in the bill to address the concerns of security agencies.
The bill was introduced in the House by the IT minister in January 2015 but it was referred to the standing committee on information technology and telecommunication to address concerns voiced by opposition lawmakers and stakeholders. The debate lingered for more than a year as some provisions and penalties were described by opposition lawmakers as highly controversial.
Rehman insisted the bill safeguards civil liberties guaranteed in the 1973 Constitution. “We do not have any mechanism to stop the misuse of cyberspace,” she said, adding the legislation is part of the National Action Plan to counter terror.
The bill says whoever coerces, intimidates, or creates a sense of fear, panic or insecurity in the government or public, including fomenting religious, ethnic or sectarian discord, will be punished with a 14-year jail term or a fine of up to Rs50 million, or both. This would mean that people who post on a website or on social media any news that goes against the state and is seen as creating fear would be liable to a jail term, say critics.
Glorification of an offence and hate speech, including its dissemination, can be punished with a five-year jail term or a fine of up to Rs10 million.
The bill also proposes a two-year prison term or a fine of up to Rs500,000 for misusing mobile phone SIMs.
Anyone who intentionally and publicly exhibits or superimposes a photograph of a person over any sexually explicit image can be sent to jail for 10 years or subjected to a fine of Rs10 million.
The proposed law also allows the government to establish an investigation agency for cyber offences. The agency will have the power to issue warrants for search and seizure of offensive or controversial content.