There are reports that the Pakistan Commission for Human Rights (PCHR) in collaboration with UNESCO and the Parliamentary Task force on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), have proposed a set of amendments to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016. Reportedly, the focus is on removing Section 34 of the Act, which allows the Executive to interpret Article 19 of the Constitution and exercise censorship against content deemed inappropriate.

The documents stress that constitutional provisions can only be interpreted by the courts, which is correct. The executive cannot be granted powers of interpretation and then the authority to enforce censorship on content arbitrarily judged as inappropriate. It is clear that the exercise of such authority would be highly subjective, and any law that enables officials to pass subjective judgments that arise out of personal bias would lead to inconsistencies and injustice. As the documents in support of the amendment suggest, content management and cybercrime prevention are not the same thing, and the former does not necessarily carry implications regarding commission of crime and resulting punishment.

Censorship is a serious subject, which cannot be carried out by the executive in the absence of a clearly defined criteria and an inbuilt mechanism for review. In any case, such provisions belong in the past, where free speech was viewed with suspicion and contempt by the powers that be. A democratic society cannot flourish if its members remain unable to express themselves. Western democracies serve as a good example in this regard, where people are allowed to share controversial or even deeply offensive ideas, and it is left to the public to accept or reject them. Censorship creates taboos, perpetuates ignorance and breeds intolerance. The government should consider proposals for amendment, and focus efforts on protection of citizens against cybercrime instead of censoring free speech.