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Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution protects freedom of speech, expression, and the press but these rights are subject to certain limitations. On July 9, 2020, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), a national coordinating and decision-making center to deal with COVID-19, formed a committee led by the Minister of Interior to prevent the spread of disinformation and fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic on social media. Since February 2020, there have been news reports of a few arrests being made under sections of the Pakistan Panel Code and the Telegraph Act for spreading fake news over social media.
I. Legal Framework
Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution protects freedom of speech and expression, stipulating that
[e]very citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.
Pakistan does not appear to have a “fake news” criminal provision or one specifically tailored to COVID-19. However, section 505 of the Penal Code criminalizes “statements conducing to public mischief”:
(1) Whoever makes, publishes, or circulates any statement, rumour or report-
(a) with 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, offence or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such; or
(b) with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity; or
(c) with intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community,
shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and with fine.
Causing annoyance or intimidation through a telephone is also punishable under section 25D of the Telegraph Act. Under section 29 of the Act, transmitting “by telegraph a message which [a person] knows or has reason to believe to be false and fabricated” is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
Electronic Media in Pakistan is regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), “an independent federal institution responsible for regulating the issuance of broadcasting licenses and distribution of privately owned print and electronic media channels (including those for radio, television, and satellite broadcasting).” It was established and is regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002 and its subsidiary rules and regulations.
Telecommunications is regulated and maintained by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which was established by the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996. The Act contains “strong power given to the Federal Government in the name of national security to set limitations on free expression and the privacy of communications” and power to terminate services. Section 31(d) states that it is a criminal offense when a person “(d) unauthorisedly transmits through a telecommunication system or telecommunication service any intelligence which he knows or has reason to believe to be false, fabricated, indecent or obscene” or “(h) commits mischief.”
II. Response to COVID-19 and Fake News
On July 9, 2020, Pakistan’s National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), a national coordinating and decision-making center to deal with COVID-19, formed a committee led by the Minister of Interior to prevent the spread on social media of “disinformation and fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee will reportedly prepare a “legal framework to prevent and counter dis-information and suggest action against those involved in spreading false information about the pandemic.” A week later, the Minister for Interior, Ijaz Ahmad Shah “presided over the meeting on COVID-19 Disinformation Prevention Mechanism at the Ministry of Interior” and “directed authorities to take “strict and immediate” action against those involved in spreading coronavirus misinformation,” according to the Arab News. The Minister further stated that “[t]he primary purpose of this committee is to ensure that correct and credible information goes to our people” and directed PEMRA’s director general “to ensure that no fake news is flashed on electronic media,” a government press release said.
On the provincial level, the Punjab government has reportedly directed officials of public sector hospitals and institutions in the province, which come under Punjab’s Specialised Healthcare and Medical Education Department, to not “give any statement or interview to the print or electronic media about the pandemic without prior approval from the competent authority.”
In mid-February 2020, a district court in Chitral ordered the arrest of a local leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) for spreading fake news through Facebook, according to a news report:
A Chinese national was working in a power project in the Drash town of the Lower Chitral district was hospitalised after he complained of abdominal pain. The PTI office-bearer allegedly spread a rumour through his facebook account and claimed that the ailing Chinese citizen was suffering from coronavirus which created fears among the people. The Chitral Police registered a case against the accused under Section 505 of the Pakistan Panel Code and Section 25 of the Telegraph Act.
In March 2020 the Sindh government sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior seeking intervention “from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to trace those who are spreading ‘fake and unsubstantial news’ through social media about ‘scores’ of positive cases of the virus in Karachi, triggering panic and fear in the people.”
Also in March the police arrested a man in the major city of Lahore “for allegedly spreading fake news through social media about the novel coronavirus and creating panic among the masses.” A news channel reported that “the suspect was peddling fake news through social media citing that a family of his area has contracted coronavirus.”
Prepared by Tariq Ahmad
Foreign Law Specialist
 Id. § 29.
 Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996, § 31(d).
 Press Release No. 114, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, We Will Take Strict Action against the Spread of Disinformation Regarding Covid-19-Ijaz Shah (July 16, 2020), https://perma.cc/HKW8-STKR.
 Press Release No. 114, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, supra note 11.
Last Updated: 12/30/2020