By Sahar Bandial
Recent reports on the intimidation and extortion of lady doctors in Lahore by a group of hackers has brought to light what may be one of countless cases of ‘cyber-harassment’ in Pakistan. The term, probably not so well known in general parlance, denotes a criminal offence in most jurisdictions around the world. Cyber-harassment is the misuse of cyber-space (through mobile or other internet technology) to harass, threaten or intimidate a person, and encompasses a range of behaviours, including stalking, sending incessant and unsolicited instant messages, or character assassination on the internet. Whether cyber-harassment constitutes a crime under the laws of Pakistan is unclear. The ambit of such crime (if it exists) also remains a matter of debate. Should an obscene or threatening Facebook communique, an altered/superimposed image of a person or emails from an unrelenting pursuer fall within the scope of the (would-be) offence?
Many of us, who have encountered such conduct on the internet, do not know. This may be on two counts. Our modus operandi when confronted with instances of harassment is to ignore the annoyance till it dies its own death. This, many women are told, is probably the most honourable and safest of response. Yet it may not always be a viable tactic. Blackmailed by the disclosure of private information and moved by notions of ‘honour’, women in our society often become trapped in a vicious cycle of threats and extortion, as we have seen in the unfolding scheme of intimidation in Lahore, to which nearly 200 women have fallen victim. The honour killing of three women in Chilas, Gilgit-Baltistan, in June 2013 (allegedly) following dissemination of an audio recording of a romantic conversation with a man, posits a more horrifying instance of the possible repercussions of the invasion of a woman’s privacy. Our ambivalence is also a consequence of lacunae in the legal regime regulating cyber-crimes. With the lapsing of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance, 2009, it remains unclear whether harassment of the kind unearthed in Lahore is a crime, and if so, under which law. Would cyber-harassment fall under the purview of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), or the Electronic Transactions Ordinance? Does the police or the FIA have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute such conduct?
Interestingly, the criminal complaint against the two absconding harassers in Lahore has been lodged under section 25-D of the Telegraph Act, 1885 and sections 506 and 385 of the PPC. These provisions of law do not deal directly with cyber-harassment, but regulate more generally the use of a telephone to cause annoyance or intimidation, criminal intimidation and causing fear of injury to commit extortion. Currently, there exists no law in Pakistan that specifically regulates cyber-harassment or stalking. The criminal complaint then seems to have been tailored to fit the offending conduct obliquely within the scope of broader provisions of law. Legislative proposals on the subject, presented earlier this year, were stalled following criticism from internet rights groups. The Cyber Crimes Bill, approved by the National Assembly in April, remains pending before a parliamentary committee. Sections 16 and 18 of the Bill criminalise the transmission or display of electronic communication with the intent of injuring or threatening to injure a person or his/her reputation, and the use of an information system with the intent to coerce, harass and intimidate a person. In their unimplemented form, however, these provisions of law are of no avail.
With over 65 per cent of internet users aged 18 to 29 falling victim to online harassment (the vast proportion of whom are young women according to the PEW Survey, 2014), this gap in the law leaves countless women (and even men) vulnerable and unprotected. Criticism of the proposed Bill may be justly founded and require rethought and reframing. Yet it is imperative that legislators take swift action to promulgate the Bill, with whatever amendments necessary. Legal regulation of cyber-harassment will not, however, be sufficient on its own. It is equally important that the state undertakes programmes to encourage reporting of the offence and created awareness regarding its nature and scope, available remedies and avenues of redress.