Government authorizes FIA to counter online attacks against state institutions

On Tuesday, it was revealed that the federal government had approved an amendment to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Act empowering it with a section of the Pakistan Penal Code to take action against those who intend to spread “rumors and false information against state institutions” on social media.

On Thursday, cabinet members approved a summary of the 1974 FIA Act schedule revisions prepared by the Ministry of the Interior.

According to the summary available on Dawn.com, the “FIA has informed that social media is awash with false information and rumors against state institutions and organizations with the intent to cause or incite or which is likely to cause or incite any officer, soldier, sailor, or airman in the army, navy, or air force of Pakistan to mutiny, offense, or otherwise disregard or fail to perform his duty as such.”

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It adds that these rumors and false information were also broadcast with the aim to produce, or which is likely to cause, fear or anxiety in the public or in any segment of the public, therefore inducing any person to commit an offense against the state or against the public tranquility.

“The FIA has stated that these are likely to inspire any group or community to commit an offense against another group or community.”

The FIA proposed that the subject offense be tried under PPC Provision 505 (statement conducive to public mischief), which is not presently included in the FIA Act’s schedule of crimes, and sought the state’s agreement to put the section in its list of scheduled offenses.

The first subsection of Section 505 of the PPC stipulates that anybody convicted of its corresponding offense is subject to imprisonment for a term of up to seven years and a fine.

Under the condition of anonymity, an FIA official disclosed to Dawn.com that, prior to the addition of this unit, the agency required cabinet approval and met other bureaucratic procedures before taking action. “Similarly, other branches of the FIA, including the counterterrorism branch, would be entitled to take action against any such content that falls under their jurisdiction, including filing a complaint,” he added.

Farieha Aziz, co-founder of the digital rights organization Bolo Bhi, commented on the approval as follows: “Since 2016, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) has been the state’s preferred weapon against dissidents.

“However, when courts — specifically the Islamabad High Court — began to curb the executive’s overreach and subject them to legal procedures, we have witnessed the employment of PPC provisions.”

She said that in recent years, initial investigation reports containing section 505 have grown commonplace but fall under the police’s jurisdiction.

Aziz added, “To evade procedures that require judicial authorization and warrants, or to have to rely on the police, it looks that the FIA’s hand is being strengthened so that the crackdown may proceed more rapidly.”