Dawn Editorials 23rd May 2023

Cyber complaints

A RISE in cyber harassment cases in the country points to how digital tools and social media are manipulated by individuals to intimidate, bully and defraud young people. Almost 2,700 people, mostly women, approached the Digital Rights Foundation in 2022 to lodge complaints of harassment, financial fraud and blackmail. The complainants were between the ages of 18 and 30 years, with the highest number of complaints from Punjab. The report notes that the FIA, the main law-enforcement agency mandated to address the issue, has cybercrime wings in only 15 cities. Many have told DRF that the channel of registering online complaints is not reliable; in fact, in-person registration seems more effective. This means that the true number of cybercrime cases in the country may be much higher, as, thanks to the lack of an effective online reporting mechanism, individuals can only register a complaint in cities where the FIA has a dedicated wing.

As internet use increases in Pakistan, the perpetrators of these crimes will cast a wider net when hunting for targets. The government needs to wake up to this reality. Ironically, it rushes to legislate on internet regulation, and to make laws legitimising surveillance and clampdowns. There is, unfortunately, little political will when it comes to implementing already existing laws to address cybercrime and internet harassment, or to improve the laws. Every government is focused on enacting laws for short-term gains, or as a reaction to an event, without thoughtfully dealing with the issue. To worsen matters, LEAs are non-transparent regarding how they work on cases, so it is difficult to ascertain if the right work is being done. Resultantly, women and marginalised communities are repeatedly targeted and have limited platforms for their grievances to be taken up. The government needs to engage with digital rights activists and groups to see where the laws are failing, and where LEAs can improve to help victims of cybercrime get justice.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2023


Overreactions

AS the establishment vows to show no mercy to the PTI for the events of May 9, and the PDM helps the military in bringing Imran Khan and his party to heel, disturbing questions about trying civilians in military courts, as well as the continued crackdown on the party and its supporters, remain.

Where trying those who took part in the riots following Mr Khan’s arrest under the Army Act is concerned, there are mixed signals from the state. The prime minister has said only those who attacked military installations will be tried under the Army Act, while those who indulged in destroying civilian infrastructure will face civilian laws.

The defence minister, meanwhile, has ruled out the formation of new military courts. While his clarification is welcome, it remains to be seen under what mechanism civilians will be tried, as the constitutional cover for the trial of non-military personnel in military courts expired in 2019.

As for the continued clampdown on PTI and its supporters, Human Rights Watch has called for the state to end the “arbitrary arrests of political opposition activists and peaceful protesters.”

As this paper has argued earlier, using military courts to punish rioters is stepping into dangerous territory. While those who indulged in violence need to be punished, the punishment should be commensurate with the crime.

Many legal experts have observed that there are serious lacunae where ensuring due process in military courts is concerned, and the accused are unlikely to get a fair trial.

Moreover, when a civilian government is in power, and the laws of the land are adequate to punish the rioters, the need to reactivate military courts does not arise. Civilian laws should be supreme and all those accused of indulging in violence on May 9 and later, need to be tried in regular courts.

As for the wave of arrests and intimidation, there are disturbing reports of families of PTI supporters being harassed, while even journalists covering the party’s protests have been rounded up and questioned. Suffice it to say, all actions need to be within lawful bounds, and no witch-hunts can be allowed.

Regarding the civilian actors gleefully supporting the anti-PTI campaign, they should not forget that in future, if they ever dare to disagree with the establishment, they may also face similar treatment, or worse.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2023


Probing the leaks

THE future chief justice of Pakistan is being put to the test. Justice Qazi Faez Isa has been tasked by the PDM government to head a three-member judicial commission that will probe the veracity of various audio clippings ‘leaked’ in recent months, and determine whether they have had any bearing on the ‘independence’ of the judiciary.

Though the ‘audio leaks’ saga has caused or sought to cause reputational damage to a variety of powerful individuals, including key politicians and bureaucrats, the government only wants the commission to focus on the leaks involving judges and their families.

This limitation on the scope of the inquiry has been slammed as a ‘deliberate omission’ by former prime minister Imran Khan, who wants that the judges also determine who it is who has been illegally snooping on even the conversations of sitting prime ministers without their knowledge, and why.

It is a very valid question, and an inquiry into the practice of illegal surveillance — which, it seems, is being conducted on an alarmingly broad scale these days — should have been included in this commission’s terms of reference.

The government has the power to broaden the scope of the inquiry; in the interests of transparency and to show it is acting in good faith, it should do so now.

If not, then perhaps the judges conducting the audio leaks probe may find a way through the existing ToRs to have the matter included in their purview. It would seem unfair to begin deliberating on these recordings without first determining who made them, for what purpose, and under what legal sanction.

The country is witness to how Justice Isa and his family were previously made to suffer over the spurious findings of what was finally declared an illegal probe into their personal financial affairs.

That ‘inquiry’, too, was sanctioned by elements within the state who felt they enjoyed complete impunity, even when they are trampling on the constitutional rights of a sitting Supreme Court judge. The commission should at least attempt to unmask such elements in the public interest.

Lastly, it is encouraging that the commission has decided that its proceedings will be made public. However, it would be well-advised to tread with caution.

Given the fraught political atmosphere and creeping control of unelected quarters over matters of law and administration, it will be a challenge to ensure that the judiciary remains above the chaos consuming the other branches of state.

With the public watching the commission’s activities and conduct, it is uniquely placed to set an example for others to follow. Many have rather high expectations from the senior puisne judge. It will be interesting to see a glimpse of the direction the judiciary may soon take under his stewardship of the institution.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2023

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