Reporters Without Borders fears that a new law on cyber crime, revealed on 7 January by the authorities, will pose serious obstacles to "citizen journalism" and calls on the government to clarify the definition of some of its provisions.
"This law prevents any blogger from posting photos or video showing persons who have not given their consent," the press freedom organisation said. "Pakistan has understood its right to give itself a law for fighting cyber-crime, but it is vital that this law should not obstruct freedom of information."
Reporters Without Borders added: "We urge the government to clarify the content of some of the provisions that we think are dangerous. With just one month to go to legislative elections, some of the articles of this law look like censorship."
The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act has been in force since 31 December and will be submitted to the new parliament in April, after it has been elected. Reporters Without Borders has written to minister of information technology and telecommunications Awais Laghari asking him to "provide guarantees as regards respect for freedom of information."
The law provides for the death penalty for anyone causing the death of another person by means of email messages. A Federal Investigation Agency representative in Islamabad tried to justify the law by referring to Daniel Pearl's murder and describing the exchange of emails between the kidnappers as a "cyber-crime."
Aside from the creation of an information and communication technologies tribunal, two articles suggest that this law will add to the censorship measures already applied in Pakistan:
Article 13 on "Cyber stalking" makes it a crime to "take or distribute pictures or photographs of any person without his consent or knowledge." Citizen journalism of the kind practised by bloggers is based on precisely this sort of activity.
Article 28 on retention of traffic data says: "A service provider shall, within its existing or required technical capability, retain its traffic data for a minimum period of 90 days and provide that data to the investigating agency or the investigating officer when required." The government can extend the period if it wants.
Reporters Without Borders points out that the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cyber-crime reaffirms "the right of everyone to hold opinions without interference, as well as the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, and the rights concerning the respect for privacy."
One month before legislative elections, the Pakistani government is effecting a very significant reinforcement of its control over the dissemination of news and information. A Reporters Without Borders study released on 9 January identified five major problems for the media in the run-up to the elections, including ordinances restricting press freedom that were adopted in November. Read the bill and the letter to the Minister.