Is the internet safer for women in Pakistan?

It wasn’t long ago when Pakistan’s parliament passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) in 2016. Peca is a set of laws which supporters contended would restrict online extremist content, hate speech, and curb online harassment of women. 

After almost four years does this law (Peca) had created a safe online environment for women in Pakistan?

Female journalists don’t think it has. On Aug 12, a group of noted women journalists issued a statement condemning a “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of online harassment against colleagues, including threats of violence. The human rights minister, Shireen Mazari said she found the statement’s details “disturbing”.

Some journalists said that previously when they had reported crimes under Peca, their complaints were ignored. Even worse, the law’s defamation provisions have been misused to harass women. They made it clear they did not want to turn to a law that abused human rights.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) implements Peca, and its cybercrime wing investigates complaints, especially from women. But in a country of 34 million internet users, the cybercrime wing has a team of only 500 individuals (400 of whom were added this year).

One news report said that until 2018 there were only two women staffing the cybercrime help desk.

The agency does not have the resources to battle the daily scourge of gendered online harassment.

In September, the FIA charged nine people under Peca’s Section 20, which makes it a criminal offence to transmit defamatory information.

The agency charged female witnesses in a sexual harassment case against the man who lodged the criminal defamation case. Several feminist groups condemned the agency’s action.

Moreover, the law requires the FIA to submit biannual reports to parliament; but in four years it has submitted only one. The numbers the agency shared are grim: it registered 8,500 complaints of women facing online harassment in 2018 and 2019.

Before Peca was passed, Human Rights Watch in a joint statement in 2015 expressing concern that the law would violate Pakistan’s human rights commitments.

Peca’s provisions include allowing the government to censor online content and to criminalise internet user activity under extremely broad criteria.

Human Rights Watch said that this “bill constitutes a clear and present danger to human rights on the pretext of addressing legitimate fears about cybercrime”.

These concerns have been borne out. The government needs to get serious about curbing gendered online harassment of women and overhaul Peca’s abusive provisions and the power structure that controls the investigative agency.

The agency needs to be held accountable for being dismissive about complaints brought by women. It needs to add gender-sensitised men and women to their help desk, helpline and investigation teams; and report to parliament as the law requires.

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