Senators on Wednesday invited renewed scrutiny of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, calling it a “dangerous” and “black law”. These are harsh words coming from the same men who had debated and passed the bill barely a year ago. What has changed in such a short period of time that senators now believe that a law that was exigent has become a threat?

While discussing the matter, Senator Farhatullah Babar said: “The bill is an attempt to curb citizens’ freedom of speech rather than protect them. Banned militant outfits continue to operate freely on social media but restrictions are being placed on citizens raising relevant questions on online portals.” The interior ministry’s blanket order against ‘those posting against the Army or against Pakistan’s national interests’ also came under scrutiny and was rejected as a curb on valid criticism. “Who decides which questions [raised on social media] are against the Army or national security? Is asking questions about 90 acres of land akin to defaming the Army?” the Senator asked in the meeting.

These are important questions, ones that have been raised vociferously by digital and human rights advocacy groups during the passage of the bill, and the same concerns were raised by parliamentarians from both houses during debate on the issue. The oppressive ways in which the bill is being used right now is specific to today’s circumstances, but the concerns that it can be and would be used in an oppressive way had been raised before. The Senate cannot claim ignorance of these facts and cannot pretend that this is an issue that has just surfaced – it must share a significant portion of the blame for allowing the bill to pass without significant safeguards.

All is not lost however. The bill was originally construed as a piece of legislation that would protect citizens from online harassment and other cybercrimes; to that end the bill’s provisions are sufficient. The problem arises when the powers granted to the government in this bill are misused by the executive. It is the Interior Ministry which directs PEMRA on the application of the law and it is the same ministry which threatened the shutdown of the whole social media. This rampant executive power must be bought to heel.

The Senators may not be able to change the bill after it having been passed but the can draft further legislation that can put fetters on the executive’s unchecked power and sets out a binding guideline for the application of the bill. If it manages to do that it can make for its previous oversights.