ISLAMABAD: The state has obligations and binding commitments to protect the right to information and freedom of expression of its citizens, which were being curtailed in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2015, said participants of a roundtable at the Jinnah Institute. The conference was titled ‘Beyond the Firewall: Freedom of Speech in a Censored Democracy’. Among the issues identified at the roundtable was lack of clarity as to what constitutes an offence under the bill. The participants suggested that the Anti-Terrorism Act, which already includes surveillance mechanisms for electronic terrorism, should be used to monitor and punish cyber terrorists. The participants said that it was important to distinguish between matters of national security and public interest to ensure that the powers granted for surveillance and investigation were not misused. It was suggested that subsections within the law, which negatively impacted freedom of expression, should be identified and accordingly amended. It was noted that the proposed bill did not distinguish between telecom offences and cyber crimes, and had increased the liability placed on businesses and service providers. This has led to an increase in censorship on social media and other platforms, which are important tools for citizen awareness and collective action, they said. They said that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA) recent ban on movies, television shows and advertisements was used as examples to highlight the recent increase in electronic censorship. With the media expanding in Pakistan, there is definitely a need for regulations, but not at the expense of privacy, they said. Under the bill, investigative officers are not subject to a fixed procedure of accountability when they follow up on complaints, and can use acquired data as per their discretion. As there is no data protection legislation in place, the participants acknowledged that the retention of data runs contrary to the right of privacy. They said that it was a very critical time to take action on the cyber crime bill, as changes would go back to the National Assembly and elongate the process. It is essential to identify exactly where curtailments are coming from and how citizens can approach it, in order to safeguard freedoms guaranteed under the constitution, the participants said.