Islamabad - Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi held a consultation yesterday on the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015, on the same day when it was set to be discussed by the Senate.

Legislation that protects citizens from cybercrime and terrorism is needed more than ever, provided that a fair and progressive balance is struck between security and liberty. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill does not meet that balance - rather than protecting the rights of Pakistani citizens, as its authors and supporters claim, its passage will in effect criminalise freedom of expression and put the privacy of Pakistani citizens at risk.

The aim of the consultation was to provide senators, parliamentarians, members of civil society organisations and the media with the context of the process behind the PECB and to discuss the problematic provisions and amendments that have been suggested in the most recent versions.

Senators and members of the National Assembly gave their thoughts on the process and expressed their concerns and opinions on how the Senate would treat the PECB when it would be debated in the house.

Senators Farhatullah Babar, Shahi Syed, Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Information Technology and Information, and Rubina Khalid, also a member of the Senate Standing Committee on IT, participated in the discussions on the PECB, as did other lawmakers.

Senator Farhatullah Babar reiterated that the PECB should be subject to a true public hearing, to allow for experts in IT and law to discuss and examine the bill. He also stressed that proper public oversight is necessary.

Senator Rubina Khalid expressed the concern that the language of the PECB as it currently exists would be used not only for political victimisation but also for religious victimisation. Senator Khalid also recounted how the PML-N government had taken advantage of the National Assembly walkout by the PPP in order to push through the PECB. Senators Khalid and Babar also stressed that the PPP has a clear stance that they will not pass the Bill in its current form, and that the Bill was in such a state that it did not deserve to be amended, but to be rebuilt from the ground up, with proper input from multi-stakeholders.

Senator Shahi Syed said that the Senate would not pass the PECB in its current form, and that a public hearing on the bill would be organised to allow the public to take part in the process.

MQM MNA Raza Ali Abdi echoed these sentiments, saying that all efforts to push for change in the National Assembly by MQM have been exhausted, and now the responsibility lies with the Senate to scrap the PECB and start over.

All lawmakers present at the consultation agreed that rather than one faulty bill like the PECB, separate coherent and thought-out bills are required that focus on cyber security, cybercrime and cyberterrorism independently. It was also agreed upon that the development and implementation of strong privacy protection mechanisms – to protect Pakistani citizens, their privacy and freedom of expression – was urgently required.