Rolling back democracy.

IT is alarming that the PDM government is trying to expand the powers of the Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) to enable action against social media posts that are deemed critical of the military. Such posts have recently seen a surge because of the security establishment's alleged interference in politics.

The PDM government is attempting this through a recently proposed amendment to the FIA schedule by adding Section 505 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) to it. This means that the FIA would now have the power to prosecute people for speech that it considers as inciting a mutiny within the armed forces.

Section 505 also includes provisions related to the dissemination of deliberate rumours or false information. This amendment focuses on speech that can be seen as inciting public mischief, leading any person 'to commit an offence against the state'.

It is important to note the background of this move. A private member bill by a PTI MNA in April 2021 had proposed an amendment to Section 500 of the PPC, which pertains to criminal defamation, by adding a jail term of two years for ridiculing the armed forces.

The National Assembly Standing Committee on Interior had approved this bill, but it was withdrawn after protests by the media, civil society and the opposition of the time, which comprised the PML-N and PPP. Current Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb had, at that time, asked the committee chairperson to read the Constitution before passing such a bill.

Later, the PTI-led government passed a presidential ordinance to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and make it easier for the defamation of organisations and state personnel to be made punishable.

In a move that benefited the PTI immensely, the Islamabad High Court struck down the Peca amendment as well as the part of Section 20 of Peca that criminalised the causing of damage to someone's reputation, with jail time for the offence. Had the ordinance still been in place, the FIA's role would have been abused to take action against PTI leaders and supporters for criticising the military and the government on social media.

The cabinet's nod to a controversial amendment to the FIA schedule sets an appalling example of political leaders not learning from history.

In this context, the current move by the government once again shows an attempt to make it easier for the state to act against criticism, especially on social media, where information and hashtags...

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