The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Friday said that amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) through an ordinance promulgated in February 2022 were ‘unconstitutional.’ The decision was announced by IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah in response to a petition filed against the PECA Amendment Ordinance 2022 by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and other media outlets.
President Dr Arif Alvi had promulgated an ordinance in February this year to amend the PECA law as the government tried to curb fake news and misinformation. However, the move was not welcomed by the journalist community as well as experts, who believed that the government was trying to silence dissent on social media and control the media.
Furthermore, there was also criticism regarding the PECA Amendment Ordinance 2022 by opposition parties, rights organizations, and civil society, all of whom termed the controversial legislation as an attack on freedom of speech and journalism.
The new PECA ordinance had made public defamation a cognizable and non-bailable offence, while increasing the jail term for defaming any person or institution from three to five years. However, before the ordinance came into effect, Section 20, which pertains to the registration of complaints against individuals by aggrieved parties over defamation, was a bailable and non-criminal offence.
The media bodies had challenged the “draconian law” in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) after countrywide protests. The journalist associations, including Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND) and some senior journalists of the country, had filed the petition through senior lawyer Munir A Malik.
Subsequently, the IHC had restrained the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from arresting anyone under Section 20 of the PECA ordinance, while seeking a response from the government over the law. The four-page verdict of the IHC issued today states that free speech protected under Article 19 and the right to receive information under Article 19-A of the Constitution are essential for the development, progress, and prosperity of a society.
Therefore, the suppression of such is considered unconstitutional and contrary to the democratic values. “The criminalization of defamation, protection of individual reputations through arrest and imprisonment and the resultant chilling effect violates the letter of the Constitution and the invalidity thereof is beyond a reasonable doubt,” said the IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah in his verdict.
The court said that the PECA Amendment Ordinance 2022 was promulgated in derogation of the Constitution and the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 9, 14, 19 and 19-A. “he jurisdictional preconditions were also not in existence,” it added.
“The Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022 and promulgation thereof is declared as unconstitutional, invalid beyond reasonable doubt and it is, therefore, struck down.” IHC CJ Athar Minallah said in the verdict on Friday.