On February 28, 2020, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting through PR No. 267 announced the formation of a committee to begin consultation on the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. This follows the Prime Minister’s announcement to review the Rules and consult stakeholders, after the Rules drew sharp criticism locally and internationally. However, the government refuses to clarify the legal status of the Rules without which any consultation is merely token to deflect criticism and not a genuine exercise to seek input.
While Cabinet approval for the Rules remains in place, there can be no engagement or consultation. This only shows the government’s intent to use the consultation as a smokescreen while intending to implement and enforce the Rules already prepared and approved. The Rules as they exist, merit no discussion at all. How citizens are to be protected requires an open and informed discussion which takes into account existing procedures, laws as well as how they have been applied. The abuse of authority by the PTA and government, especially their misuse of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to stifle dissent and Section 37 of PECA in particular to report and restrict political speech, will have to be addressed first.
We also call upon tech companies to unequivocally state the terms of their engagement with the government on the Rules. Too often, citizens and end users become collateral in agreements governments and companies reach in breach of their rights, and we wish to remind them their actions will be scrutinized against adherence to global best practices and international principles to protect expression and privacy.
For the benefit of public discourse, we will continue to make public information that illustrates sensible ways of protecting citizens as well as information from comparative jurisdictions, but will not participate in any process initiated to deflect criticism and seeks to draw legitimacy to carry forth the implementation of the Rules that were devised in bad faith.
We demand the following:
– The Rules must be withdrawn by the Federal Cabinet and the decision, as documented through the process, be made public before any consultation is held
– Civil society has been categorical that Section 37 of PECA must be repealed. The consultation must begin by addressing the overbroad and arbitrary nature of Section 37 under which these Rules have been issued and review the abuse of power by the PTA and government in carrying out its functions since the enactment of PECA.
– The consultation must follow an open and transparent process. The committee must make public the agenda, process it intends to follow and clear timelines. All input provided should be minuted and put together in a report form to be disseminated for public feedback with a specified timeline which is reasonable, before which no Rules should be approved or enforced.