Pakistan fights terrorism without law to prosecute online terrorists

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Karachi: Pakistan is fighting terrorism without having a comprehensive law to check cyber crime and spread of extremism, and cannot effectively prosecute those involved in cyber crimes.

“The Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance (PECO) was promulgated in 2007, but it lapsed in 2009. Since then the hands of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) have been tied, and it cannot register FIRs (formal police complaints) against cyber criminals or extremists who indulge in hate speech on the internet,” said Mohammad Sarfaraz, the deputy director of FIA’s Cyber Crime Cell.

He told News Lens Pakistan, “We get around 500 complaints a month from all over the country, out of which 300 are genuine, but we cannot do much about them because there are no laws under which we can formally prosecute the culprits.”

Confusing legislation

Though several separate pieces of legislation, related to cyber crimes, existed such as the Electronic Trade Ordinance 2002 (ETO 2002) and several sections of the Pakistan Penal Code and Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, their application was pretty confusing because they weren’t aggregated and regulated by a single body.

In the absence of cyber-specific legislation, the FIA relied on the ETO 2002, said Barrister Zahid Jamil. However, it doesn’t help much because the evidence is not admissible in local courts in front of the judicial magistrate. “The Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups), the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance 2002 have provisions under which acts or words inciting violence or hatred can be punished. “But the confusion remains on whether a crime is committed in the cyber space or a crime is committed because of something on the cyber space,” said Barrister Jamil.

Another lawyer Jibran Nasir, who currently heads the civil society’s campaign against the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, believes that Sections 6, 8 and 11 of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 also dealt with inciting hatred online and could be used to prosecute the culprits.

But Barrister Jamil countered that all those provisions could not be used separately and had to be applied in conjunction with each other. He said Section 11E of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, which called for sealing the assets and offices of an organisation along with its literature could be applied for organised hate speech mongers.

Minister of information and technology, Anusha Rehman, told News Lens Pakistan that absence of relevant laws had made cyber crimes more dangerous because there was no check on them. She said there was an urgent need to formulate and implement laws which could check electronic crimes.

Hands tied

Meanwhile, with use of the ETO 2002 as ‘back up’ in the absence of a comprehensive cyber crime law, the FIA ends up running into dead ends with investigations.

“For example, we have had lawyers of money exchange companies take advantage of the lapsed PECO and file for relief which is usually granted by courts,” said Sarfaraz.

However, the biggest hurdle comes in dealing with cellular operators, said Mohammad Ahmed Zaeem, head of FIA’s Cybercrime Cell in Sindh.

He said the companies say they are not bound to provide information to the FIA and insist for a formal request through Intelligence Bureau. “This takes a month during which the accused often finds another escape,” he said.

With uncertain application of cyber-related laws, also arises the problem of logistics. The cyber crime cells established with millions of rupees in Punjab and Sindh remain largely unused.

Though the FIA has set up National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes, according to its website, in absence of a converged cyber crime law, its basic function is merely to liaise between various government agencies.

Barrister Jamil said the ETO 2002 was the first IT-related legislation in Pakistan providing legal grounds for the protection of e-commerce, both locally and internationally.

On the other hand, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance gave the FIA exclusive powers to deal with cyber terrorism, data damage, online fraud and forgery, hacking, cyber stalking and spamming.

The former chief of Sindh Police and project director of the National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes Shahid Nadeem Baloch told News Lens that cyber crimes can prove more dangerous since they don’t have physical constraints. He called for swift promulgation of laws pertaining to the regulation of activities on cyber space.

Online terrorism

Meanwhile, with 25 million internet users in Pakistan — with 15 million accessing it over the telephone — according to Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan, the concerns regarding incitement of violence and hatred in the cyber space are quite grave.

According to a study on hate speech in the Pakistani cyber space by Bytes for All, 92 percent of internet users have come across some form of hate speech on the internet while 51 percent have been a target of it.

Findings of the study were based on in-depth analysis of the discourse of social media accounts of the top 30 Facebook and Twitter pages, in addition to 559 respondents.

The study cites most of the respondents as saying that they had come across 92 percent of the hate speech on Facebook, followed by Twitter.

Among religious groups, 70 percent attacks on both social networking sites were against the Shia community, followed by 61 percent against Ahmedis, 43 percent against Hindus, 39 percent against Christians and 48 percent against atheists. Among ethnicities, 38 percent attacks were made against the Pakhtun community, 31 percent against the Baloch, 27 against Punjabis and 23 percent against Sindhis.

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