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Preventing misuse of cyber laws

M Ziauddin
A case was registered recently against a senior journalist, Shahzeb Jillani under sections 10(a) (cyber terrorism), 11 (hate speech) and 20 (offences against the dignity of a natural person) of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 and sections 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention), 109 (abetment) and 500 (defamation) of the Pakistan Penal Code. The allegation against him was that what he had said in a TV program fell under the ambit of cyber terrorism. Section 10(a) is punishable by a jail term of up to 14 years or a fine of up to Rs50 million or both, Section 11 is punishable by a jail term of three years and/or a fine of Rs250,000, Section 20 is punishable by a jail term of up to two years and/or a fine of Rs1 million and Section 500 is punishable by a jail term of up to two years and or a fine. The complainant had claimed that Jillani, as a guest on and producer of two Dunya News programmes, one on December 8, 2017 and another on March 18, 2019, made “defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan”.
Jillani’s lawyer told the judge that the remarks made by his clients in the TV shows and a tweet from his account did not amount to an act of cyber terrorism. But FIA’s investigating office saidJillani’s remarks fell under the ambit of cyber terrorism. A global media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has already slammed attempts to “intimidate Pakistan’s journalists” and said a reporter was being prosecuted for “cyber-terrorism”. The global watchdog said Shahzeb Jillani, who worked for Dunya News and had also worked for BBC and Deutsche Welle in the past, was facing charges under a controversial electronic crimes act and two criminal code provisions.
The charges include “defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan” and “cyber-terrorism”, the RSF said, calling on a Karachi court to dismiss the charges. The cyber laws with which both the government of Pakistan and general public are grappling with a lot of confusion and more of dread on the part of the latter need closer scrutiny to ensure that the law is not be used by the government to suppress political dissent and the democratic rights of the citizens to hold the government accountable for its errors of commission and omission.
According to Janjira Sombatpoonsiri (Weaponizing cyber law—published on May 16, 2019 in International Politics and Society’s newsletter)previously, autocratic regimes relied on legal and bureaucratic tools to impede civic activism. Now, they also use cyber law. Having watched popular protests, from the colour revolutions in the former Soviet Union to the Arab Spring, challengetheir counterparts’ power, the world’s autocrats have been adopting legal measuresaimed at incapacitating media, civic groups, including pro-democracy movements and human-rights NGOs. Among the most sweeping measures are those enabling officials to monitor and punish activists’ online activities.
Over the last decade, he continues, these countries have augmented their dissent-stifling legislation with computer-related and cyber-security laws, all of which follow a similar script. Cambodia’s cyber law, enforced by a new cybercrime unit, uses ambiguous language to facilitate the suppression of free speech. In Singapore, this function is served by the Internet Code of Practice and recently the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulationlaw. In Myanmar, it is achieved with the 2000 web regulations, which limit what can be posted online; the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which criminalises online defamation; and the 2004 electronic transactions law (amended in 2013), which imposes heavy penalties for a long list of nebulous offenses.
Similarly, laws purportedly aimed at preventing the spread of false information – such as Article 65 of Laos’s criminal code – are said to have been used against opponents. During the 2018 election campaign in Malaysia, the ruling party enacted an anti-fake-news law to emasculate the opposition, which won anyway. In the opinion of the author for activists, pushing back against draconian cyber laws and other forms of digital repression will not be easy, not least because it remains uncharted territory. A key component of these repressive cyber-strategies is said to be expansive surveillance. Thailand’s recently-enacted cyber-security bill – which complements the Computer Crime Act, adopted in 2007 and revised in 2016 – authorises the state to expand surveillance and strengthens its hand against vaguely defined cyberattacks. The Thai government – like those in Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Morocco, and Qatar – has reportedly purchased spyware from companies, including the Italy-based Hacking Team, that would allow them to hack into citizens’ computers, mobile phones, and even GPS systems.
Data-localisation requirements – which compel tech firms to store their citizens’ data on local servers – facilitate these efforts. Vietnam – along with China, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Russia – recently introduced such requirements, supposedly to prevent data theft. But keeping data within a country also allows governments to exercise control over it. Vietnam’s cyber-security law, which took effect in January, allows the government to access locally-stored social media data and remove content deemed to oppose the state. China takes this a step further: with its vast resources, it is said to be able to use advanced artificial intelligence to analyse the data that flow in, and thus to monitor its citizens.
In addition to legal repression, the use of fake videos (‘deepfakes’) and troll armies helps governments propagate their agenda and discredit activists. Cyber trolls in Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam reportedly engage in systematic bullying of online dissidents. Activists across Southeast Asia and in autocracies worldwide are feeling the effects of these initiatives. Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act was said to have been used to prosecute individuals for criticising the authorities or monarchy in at least 38 cases in 2017. In Myanmar, more than a hundred cases have been litigated under the Telecommunications Law since 2013, and in 2016 alone, 54 people were prosecuted and eight imprisoned for dissension on social media.
The Thai junta has jailed several dozen citizens for sharing ‘sensitive’ information on social media sites. With the 2019 election approaching, it has used the Computer Crime Act to press unfounded chargesagainst opposition parties, while turning a blind eye to its trolls’ fake news. In Vietnam, where hundreds of dissidents were charged in 2017-18 for alleged anti-state activism both online and off, the new cyber-security law is expected to only make matters worse. For activists, according to the writer, pushing back against draconian cyber laws and other forms of digital repression will not be easy, not least because it remains uncharted territory. But that has not stopped some from trying. And, already, protests such as those in South Koreaare said to have had some success in inducing increased legal oversight.
Many civic education groups have also been promoting digital literacy, so that citizens can help monitor the abuse of cyber laws. At the international level, advocacy networks have lobbied democratic governments and international organizations to put pressure on autocratic regimes. But there is also a broader need for a coordinated global responseaimed at protecting civic space. Only through sustained public pressure can one hope to persuade autocratic regimes to revise, or reverse, their cyber policies.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.