The ‘Digital Revolution’ has created certain rights of and responsibilities on individuals, governments and states. However, the entire globe is still trying to make laws that can govern over the rapid advancements of technology.
With the existence of the digital world, cyberbullying and cyber harassment cannot be denied. Cyberbullying is harassment conducted through electronic media. Cyberbullying is when someone, typically teens, bullies or harasses others on the internet. This can include hate speech, rumors, defamation, sexual remarks or even uploading someone’s private information on social media. Cyberbullying is considered as ‘intent to harm’. Victims of cyberbullying are often left feeling depressed, scared and have suicidal thoughts along with a wide array of negative feelings. Both men and women are not safe from cyberbullying but women are pre-eminent victims of being exploited sexually and mentally. Invasion of privacy, extortion, cyberbully and blackmailing are mainly used for spoiling women’s lives.
The US took action against cyberbullying in 2010 because of several high profile cases. Since then, awareness throughout the US has risen giving birth to specific laws addressing the limits of freedom of expression as a human right versus harassment, bullying or even defamation in extreme cases. Other countries have also followed suit and started addressing the issues encountered by individuals by social media sites. In this regard, recently, Facebook was forced to change its policies after thousands of complaints regarding uploading of material, which portrayed and further encouraged violence against women. Several groups with discriminatory titles with horrific pictures and videos of women being subject to violence were indirectly promoting negative behavior to exist online.
In Pakistan, law is still evolving, which gives rise to many different complaints arising on daily basis where women often find themselves as victims of cyberbullying and harassment. According to the report of Digital Rights Foundation 40% of the women face different forms of online harassment. According to the study of Online Violence 72% of women in Pakistan are unaware of the ‘Cyber Laws’ and ‘Cyber Hygiene’. For the last few years, researchers have shown, women in Pakistan are subject to rising threats.
The National Assembly of Pakistan passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) to address the growing concerns of problems faced online. PECA’s preamble denotes that it is a special law for prevention, investigation, prosecution and trial of cybercrimes. It is observed that Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), designated under Section 29 of PECA, invokes the provisions of the FIA Act, 1974, for conducting inquiries in relation to offences defined under PECA that may not be correct. Pertinently, under Section 3 of the FIA Act, FIA is mandated to investigate only such offences that are in the schedule of the FIA Act and have a nexus with the federal government.
Section 20 of the Act addresses the offences against the dignity of a person. Section 21 states the offences against modesty of a person and minor, and further elaborates on malicious code, cyberstalking, and spamming and child pornography. However, this law is seen as an unconstitutional piece of legislation by many human rights lawyers and activists and a major threat to freedom of expression. According to them, this law has been drafted in such a manner that it can be misused by the state within the bounds of the vague language of this legislation. While there are critics, there are people defending this law under the garb of it being a tool to protect people on online spaces.
Furthermore, another concern is whether, the powers attributed to few governmental authorities should be given to them in actuality. For instance, Section 37 of PECA gives unfettered powers to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to block, censor or remove online content, thereby restricting the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan.
The PECA ensures that a legal procedure is followed in order to reach a just conclusion. It states that the first step would be to file a complaint with the National Response Center for Cyber Crime (NR3C), FIA, followed by an investigation into the matter once the perpetrator has been identified, ending with a legal hearing and subsequent punishment. Penalties range from a minimum for PKR 100,000 in fine and a few months in jail to over ten million rupees in fines and up to twenty years in jail.
Quite importantly, the act also promises complete anonymity for those who file complaints. However, the procedure under PECA takes a lot longer than the actual stipulated timeline.
In order to address the issues faced by women in Pakistan in online spaces, Nighat Dad, founder of Digital Rights Foundation successfully launched the Cyber Harassment Helpline. Through this helpline, it was found that women find it rather difficult to come forward and register a complaint. The first dedicated helpline for online harassment and cyberbullying was introduced and has a special support team, which includes a qualified psychologist, digital security experts and trained lawyers. This helpline strives to help women, children, human rights defenders, activists, minorities and any other person who does not feel safe in an online space. Furthermore, Digital Rights Foundation works for disseminating awareness regarding any problems faced online. Due to social stigma attached to women who are harassed, it is necessary for women to know their rights before embarking onto online spaces where they end up becoming vulnerable at the hands of bullies and stalkers.
A very small number of women in Pakistan have access to the internet due to several reasons inclusive of low literacy rate and poverty. Those who eventually find themselves in online spaces are often harassed, cyberbullied, stalked or followed through fake accounts. In order for women to protect themselves and still use such online spaces, it is necessary for women to know the remedy to the problems that might arise when they are engaging in any online space. Not only is it imperative for women to know the rights and existing laws that might protect women, but it is also necessary to know organizations that are actively working towards making online spaces for women a safer place. HH
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