ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology (IT) has granted one last hearing to the critics of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB), 2015, to come and share their concerns and suggestions.
Six members representing industry stakeholders, consisting of IT industry experts, will have roughly an hour to ninety minutes on Friday morning to discuss what should be omitted and added to the bill with committee chairman, retired Captain Mohammad Safdar of the PML-N.
Critics of the cybercrime law have been arguing that in its current form, the bill gives unbridled powers to investigating authorities and chokes civil liberties. One of their major arguments is that the bill criminalises texting and emailing without the consent of the receiver.
Stakeholders have held press briefings, protested on the streets and threatened to go to court if the bill is passed in its present state. They argue that it was reduced from a comprehensive 44-page document to a 13-pager, omitting their suggestions regarding safeguards.
Previous requests for public hearings on omissions and additions in the cybercrime law had been denied by the standing committee. However, the chairperson has been receiving suggestions through email, which he now wants to discuss with the stakeholders in persons.
Capt Safdar believes that the bill is complete and should be laid before the National Assembly. “However, I respect the opinions of all members who wish that stakeholders should be granted one last hearing,” he said, adding that following discussions with stakeholders, the bill would become the property of parliament.
Although the chair announced on Wednesday, when the committee met to discuss the bill, that no more meetings will be held and that the bill should be sent to parliament, members from the opposition parties objected.
When the chairperson invited members to speak one by one, the MQM’s Syed Ali Raza Abidi began by saying that the bill was the need of the hour, but not in its present form. “Nobody wants to overwrite the bill, but it should be complete and owned by all the parties. If it is opposed in parliament, it would mean that we are not on the same page,” he said.
Talking to Dawn after the meeting, Mr Abidi felt his objective had been achieved. “This law is more about moral policing and drags in Islam and family values. We do not have much against it, but we certainly want clarity on these important issues so that our children do not get into trouble with the law for innocent acts,” he said.
“The chair must have a balanced approach. Elected members cannot shut their doors on the people they represent,” PPP’s Shazia Marri said, urging the chairman to allow everyone to put their heads together one more time.
Talking to Dawn after the committee meeting, Ms Marri said she felt that the ministry and the bureaucracy were trying to impose their decision on the committee. “We appreciate the fact that the chairman has permitted the public hearing, but we wish that the doors would be opened and more people could be heard. We also hope that the ministry will do away with its dominating and arrogant attitude over the issue,” she said.
MNAs Amjad Ali Khan and Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtyar were the other two opposition members who demanded a public hearing. Other PML-N members, such as retired Major Tahir Iqbal and Farhana Qamar also agreed, but thought that no more deliberations would follow after the discussion on Friday.
“We have seen a lot of unnecessary poison being spread against Pervaiz Rashid that can put his life in danger. The cybercrime bill is needed immediately so that hate speech can be prevented,” PML-N’s Talal Chaudhry said.
State Minister for IT Anusha Rehman urged the chairman to only discuss specifics with stakeholders and avoid getting into a general debate.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Khawaja Zaheer Ahmed described the law as perfect and said that it was reduced from 44 pages to 13 after they did away with irrelevant and repetitive content. He argued that vested interests could not be put before the national interest.
Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) DG Intelligence Sajjad Salim told the meeting that the law was “made soft” so that it did not impinge upon civil liberties. Another FIA official, who identified himself as Aoun, told the meeting that 30 per cent of the offences committed on the internet were related to cybercrimes.
“More than 80 per cent are not reported because people do not want to go public on the issue and others do not know where to report. 60 per cent of the offences are concerned with social media,” he said.
However, the Joint Action Committee of stakeholders opposing the current cybercrime bill responded quickly after Wednesday’s meeting.
“A public hearing on the PECB is scheduled for Friday, May 22, 2015. However, the ‘invitation’ has only been extended to seven people to appear before a committee of 20 members. This is contrary to the spirit of a ‘public hearing’,’ the JAC said in a statement issued later in the day.
JAC members are definitely among the stakeholders, but they were not the only ones, the statement stressed, adding that instead of hand-picking selected invitees, the Standing Committee on IT should conduct a proper public hearing by opening it to all concerned members of the public and invite the entire print and electronic media too, in the spirit of transparency and openness.
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2015