The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, at the time of writing this piece, awaits the president’s signature to become a law. The civil society fears that this impending new law, which also has certain non-controversial aspects, may result in suppression of speech, broad content management, as well as abuse by the state of new powers. Indeed, parody or satire aimed at a state official may now land you in jail. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority will have the power to block or remove content online. Some question whether this gives them too much power.
The state, on the other hand, believes that it has been handicapped as extremists and other anti-state elements (a broad and ever-shifting category) have used social media and the Internet to spread poison — or to simply mock the state. This, too, is not without force.
However, both sides would do well to consider another angle: the state, when it wants to abuse its power, does not always need the law. If it wants to block content or spy on its people, it will do that regardless — and it has been doing that. The state will also ensure that enough elements scream in its support while invoking religion or nationalism.
This noise, and creating an accompanying fear of violence, is how weak states manage things. This noise also tends to ensure that courts remain cognizant of public opinion and the threat of violence, and are cautious in their approach. Hence, the greatest worry is perhaps not the letter of the law, but the character of a state that is simultaneously too weak to fight its enemies while being strong enough to suppress ordinary citizens.
The state, for its part, would do well to remember that writing down a new law does not necessarily increase its actual power or – more importantly – its capacity to deal with real threats. Perhaps the greatest effect of the new law will be self-censorship among people. This may create fear, but not security, leaving ordinary citizens even more vulnerable. Will the state eventually realise the futility of enacting new laws without improving its police, the quality of its investigation and prosecution services? The jury is out on that one.
This article was originally published in the Herald's September 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a Barrister-at-Law.