ISLAMABAD: 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 offense. However, the ordinance made the offense 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 cognizable and a non-bailable offense.
The complainant has been defined as the aggrieved person, their authorized 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, organization, 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 cognizable offense.
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 cognizance 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.