Islamabad, Pakistan – As journalist Bilal Farooqi was led to a dark cell in a police station in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, a dirty towel hooded over his head, he prepared for a long night ahead.
“I had been thinking, as soon as I had been brought to the police station, the first thing in my mind was that I’m definitely going to be fired,” he says. “I realised that it was going to be a tough few hours.”
Farooqi’s ‘crime, for which he was arrested at his home on the evening of September 11, was to have tweeted criticism of the Pakistani government and military, particularly regarding the actions of a religious organisation known for inciting violence against the minority Shia Muslim sect.
He was arrested under Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), a law passed in 2016 that regulates Pakistanis’ use of the internet and authorises the government to censor content.
Increasingly in recent years, PECA’s defamation clauses have been used to target journalists and rights activists who express dissent against the government and the country’s powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 73-year history.
Last month, the government made public a new expansion to PECA that would outlaw online criticism of the government and public office holders; allow the government to ban online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; and require all platforms – including messaging apps like WhatsApp – to share users’ decrypted data with authorities without judicial oversight.