On August 11, 2016, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) was passed to restrict radical online content, hate speech, and harassment in Pakistan. The PECA has several sections that pertain to online harassment and the protection of women. Section 18, 19, and 21 deal with cybercrimes against women’s dignity and privacy. However, these sections are vague without a clear definition of the crimes, and their ambiguity affects the act’s effective implementation. Although the act provides a framework for halting crimes against women, it is imperative to dig deeper into the underlying scope of the PECA and the reasons for its futile functionality as the law has failed to protect women in cyberspace. Similarly, it is crucial to analyse the flawed nature of its enforcement and its impact on women’s freedom of expression in the cyber domain.
The institutional imbalance of the PECA lies in its imprecise sections and implementation. Section 18, which is not explicitly designed to deal with online harassment of women, addresses certain kinds of reputational damage which inheres in case of harassment and offences against the dignity of women. This section is elusive and subtle in terms of a human rights law due to the addition of criminal defamation to the section. Similarly, article 19 covers the use of images for sexually explicit purposes without consent. It articulates that whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits, displays or transmits any information without the consent of a natural person, the alleged person shall be punished with seven years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to five million Rupees or both (for reference see Section C). This section has its flaws as there are no clear guidelines under the section as to what constitutes “sexually explicit”. It overlooks other substantial things which can be used to exasperate women. Cyberstalking under Section 21 of the PECA enunciates that “A person commits the offence of cyber stalking who (sic)” uses the cyberspace “with the intent to coerce or intimidate or harass any person”; such offender shall be penalised. Like other sections, this section’s description of cyberstalking is ambiguous, and it criminalises activities that might not be considered a crime. Hence, sections of the act that deal with women’s privacy and dignity in cyberspace are vague. The interpretations of such sections are mere presumptions, affecting the functionality and enforcement of the PECA.
Besides, the enforcement agencies’ structural ineffectiveness, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), courts, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), and service providers have created several hurdles for online women victims. In October 2018, the FIA noticed that cybercrimes had rapidly increased in Pakistan. It conducted 2,295 inquiries, registered 225 cases, and made 209 arrests which is the highest figure since the PECA was enforced.
Primarily, there is a lack of gender-sensitisation in the agencies as mainstreaming of women in such entities is negligible. The female staff is limited to small numbers, and women feel uncomfortable in sharing their personal data and online harassment experiences with the male staff. Women often complain to the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) helpline about the hesitancy to visit the relevant agencies due to their harassing environments. Also, women have noticed insensitivity towards their evidential files and personal information at such offices. As no standard operating procedure (SOPs) is followed in these agencies to ensure data privacy and confidentiality of the victims’ cases, it leads to additional harassment.
Cybercrimes against women have not only curtailed their freedom of expression but also inculcated cyber timidity in them.
Also, the verification systems are lethargic to address more urgent cases as the relevant agencies take two weeks to take action against online violence. But there are cases in which copies of defamatory material can be made readily and shared, and transferred instantly, causing irreparable damage within a very short period. In such cases, immediate action is needed. However, enforcement agencies lack the required procedures. The absence of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), which allows data sharing and content removal, is another major problem. The agencies lack foreign MLATs, making them abandon such cases due to the non-compliance of social media companies.
Moreover, the courts have been given authority to try cybercrime cases, and judges have been designated to the main provinces, including two judges in Balochistan, two in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, four in Punjab and 27 in Sindh. However, there is grave concern regarding the limited number and training of judges, rendering the authority vain and futile. Moreover, unchecked power is given to the enforcement agencies under section 34, which, instead of providing relief to the women victims, rather controls their freedom of speech and expression.
Overall, women’s lives have been impacted due to the lack of an effective implementation mechanism of the PECA. Cybercrimes against women have not only curtailed their freedom of expression but also inculcated cyber timidity in them. Such crimes have heightened the fear of bullying in women and girls, refraining them from using the social media platforms. A Peshawar-based psychologist has evaluated a strong association between cyber violence and female mental health issues. Therefore, the PECA should include provisions that deal directly with women cyber-harassment.
Although there are some major flaws in the Act, it can be improved by taking affirmative steps. The women-related sections of the PECA, which are vague and ambiguous, should be revised, and offences against women should be made specific, clear, and understandable. Likewise, the implementation procedure plays a significant role in making this law efficacious. For this, the enforcement agencies of the PECA should be strengthened to effectively curb online violence against women and ensure cybersecurity and women empowerment. Simultaneously, a mechanism should be introduced to keep check and balance on the enforcement agencies. If the existing law cannot be improved, a new cybercrime law might be introduced exclusively for women through a legislative debate, providing a free online space for women in Pakistan.
In a nutshell, the PECA has remained rather inactive until now due to its flawed provisions and mechanism. However, as cyberspace is becoming significant and relevant, the PECA sections and institutional faults must be worked upon. Such steps will mainstream women in the online domain by ensuring their online rights and heightening their role in the virtual arena.