–Following arrest of PML-N’s social media activists, Nawaz Sharif reminds govt of its ‘constitutional responsibility to ensure protection of free speech on social media’
–State Minister for Information Maryam Aurangzeb says govt has not used cybercrime law to silence its critics
LAHORE: The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is seemingly getting a taste of its own medicine, as the cybercrime law that it bulldozed through the National Assembly in April last year ostensibly to muzzle anti-PML-N criticism on the social media, is now being used to gag the party’s criticism of the Pakistan Army and superior judiciary.
The crackdown on social media activists belonging to the PML-N, especially after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case on July 28, prompted the former prime minister to remind his party’s government of its “constitutional responsibility to respect and ensure protection of freedom of speech offline and on social media”.
In a statement issued from London on Saturday, Sharif expressed “serious concern” over the alleged abduction and harassment of PML-N social media supporters, terming it an attack on freedom of media.
مسلم لیگ (ن) کے سربراہ اور سابق وزیر اعظم نواز شریف کا سوشل میڈیا پر مسلم لیگ کے حامیوں کو ہراساں کرنے پر رد عمل pic.twitter.com/U1yXxQWDnS
— PML(N) (@pmln_org) October 21, 2017
Condemning the “suppression of dissent”, the PML-N president said: “Everybody has the right to express their opinion or have disagreements as long as they’re not violating the country’s law.”
“Curbing social media freedom is unacceptable. This is an attack on the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
Sharif asked the Federal Ministry for Interior to take notice of the issue and ensure that the arrested PML-N supporters, journalists and bloggers were freed as soon as possible. “People who have been arrested for their social media posts must be released immediately,” he demanded.
“Attempts to silence voices of dissent using power are really worrying. The government needs to stop this from happening,” he said.
Sharif’s statement comes in wake of Thursday night’s arrest of a PML-N social media activist, Anwar Adil Tanoli from Islamabad by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
Tanoli’s arrest came days after five other persons from Lahore – said to be members of the “PML-N’s strategic media cell” reportedly run under the direct supervision of Sharif’s daughter and political heiress, Maryam, were arrested on similar charges by the FIA.
Tanoli was booked under Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016 (PECA) and sections 500, 501, 505, 109 and 34 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), while his alleged accomplice Wajid Rasool Malik has fled the country.
Pakistan Today has learnt on good authority that even though the FIA was forced to register a case against Tanoli and arrest him on the complaint of a private citizen, it is reluctant to pursue the case due to alleged involvement of State Minister for Interior Talal Chaudhry, whose ministry administers the FIA.
This paper reported on Saturday that Talal Chaudhry left no stone unturned to get Tanoli out of the FIA’s custody, but due to registration of the FIR and solid evidence of maligning the state institutions on social media networks, it became difficult for the FIA’s senior hierarchy to release the accused.
While the PML-N claims that its social media cell is proactively building the party’s image as well as dispelling and countering propaganda against the party, its detractors, particularly the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has alleged that the media cell is actively engaged in maligning the armed forces and superior judiciary for the last two years.
Talking to Pakistan Today, State Minister for Information Maryam Aurangzeb said that even though the cybercrime law was passed by the PML-N government, it has never used the law to target political dissent.
“We believe in freedom of speech in letter and spirit. Even today our government is being subjected to a media trial, both in the mainstream press and on social media, but we have not moved against any individual. Silencing dissent is not our party’s policy,” she said, adding that PML-N President Nawaz Sharif has also made it clear that while anti-state activism is not permissible, there should be no bar on expressing personal opinion on political issues.
The minister said that the party was perturbed by the crackdown on its activists and hoped they would be released soon.
Earlier, Sharif’s daughter Maryam had denied the existence of the PML-N’s media cell reportedly being run from the Prime Minister’s House during her father’s time in office.
“I am not running any media cell presently,” she told a private media outfit while responding to reports of arrest of the five PML-N social media activists from Lahore.
Repeated attempts were made to contact State Minister for Interior Talal Chaudhry to know the details of the cases involving PML-N activist Abid Tanoli and five others who were taken into custody but the calls went unanswered.
Efforts were also made to contact PTI spokespersons Fawad Chaudhry and Naeemul Haq for their comments on the matter, as some PTI social media activists have also been arrested by the FIA on similar charges. However, both men remained unavailable by the time this report was filed.
The draconian cybercrime law ─ which has been widely criticised by the IT industry as well as the civil society for curbing human rights and giving overreaching powers to law enforcement agencies ─ was submitted to the National Assembly for voting in January 2015 by the Ministry of Information Technology.
It was then referred to the NA Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication to address concerns raised by the opposition members and stakeholders from the industry.
A draft of the cybercrime bill was then forcefully cleared by the standing committee in September before being forwarded to the NA for final approval without showing committee members the copy of the bill.
The law criminalises activities such as sending text messages without the receiver’s consent or criticising government actions on social media with fines and long-term imprisonment. Online criticism of the country, its courts, and the armed forces is also banned under the law.