As Pakistani twitterette KomalWaqar aptly noted, “Nothing says civilian, democratic government” quite like this following story. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s government announced Sunday that “sending indecent, provocative and ill-motivated stories and text messages” through emails and mobile phones is an offense under the Cyber Crime Act [CCA], and violators could be sent to prison for up to 14 years. A senior official in the Interior Ministry told Dawn it was “launching a campaign” against the circulation of “concocted” stories against the civilian leadership and security forces, since “some elements had been trying to malign” the government and Pakistani military, and the Federal Investigation Agency’s Cyber Crime Cell has been tasked to block or trace such emails and text messages. Moreover, reported The News, “Any Pakistani living abroad and violating the provisions of the Cyber Crime Act can also be charged under the Act and is liable for deportation to Pakistan.”
This of course is not the first time the “Cyber Crime Act” has garnered media headlines. A decree against cyber crime or “terrorism” was first issued by former President Pervez Musharraf in December 2007, and was also addressed by President Asif Ali Zardari in September 2008. According to the law, which went into effect September 19, “the offender, whether a person, group or organization, will be deemed to have committed ‘cyber terrorism’ if they access a computer, electronic system or an electronic device with a view to engaging in a ‘terroristic act,'” which is defined as an attempt to “alarm, frighten, disrupt, harm, damage or carry out an act of violence” against people or the government.
While “cyber crime” is not a new phenomenon, Sunday’s announcement adds a very ambiguous dimension to the ordinance. What kinds of stories are considered “concocted” or “provocative”? Does that refer to Taliban propaganda against the state or does it also include any criticism against the government?
Even more important – how does the government propose to monitor Pakistani citizens’ text messages? According to Dawn today, neither the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) nor the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) even has a system to screen such communication in bulk. In lieu of this fact, it seems the FIA can only launch investigations after receiving such complaints, quite a difference from them strutting around like cowboys rounding up those nasty e-outlaws. Dawn cited a representative of a cell phone company, who said, “In the absence of any mechanism to screen millions of emails and SMS, the government apparently wants to merely warn those who have launched propaganda against its top functionaries.”
The entire story is interesting because it raises the oft-debated question of where freedom of speech ends and where government intervention begins. When is it okay for the government to intervene and block websites, text messages, and other forms of electronic communication? More importantly, can we be sure that the state won’t abuse such ordinances to round up citizens who are voicing their criticism? For more background information on cyber crime and terrorism in Pakistan, see below: