Free expression on a tight leash in Pakistan


Karachi: Contrary to the government’s claims of defending the right to free expression for its subjects, concerned citizens and civil society representatives have filed a constitutional petition in Sindh High Court against the crackdown, arrests and harassment of citizens, mostly social media activists and journalists in the name of defaming Military by the government.

Pakistan in its report, submitted to United Nations Human Rights Committee (CCPR) has claimed, “All citizens are free to express their opinion and views and, no case of reprisal, harassment or intimidation regarding disappeared persons, human rights defenders or lawyers has been reported to government authorities or other statutory bodies.”

News Lens Pakistan has copy of the report titled ‘Replies to the list of issues’ that has been received by CCPR in March 2017 further states, “No such case has been reported to the police, any court, to the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances (COIED) under the Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Act 1956 or any state authority by any individual or civil society organizations.”

Farieha Aziz, one of the petitioners and defender of free expression online while talking to the News Lens Pakistan said that the government could make all claims they like but those are far from the truth.

“There is an environment of fear and panic among even peaceful citizens due to unlawful activities of the state. The state must stop turning on its own citizens who voice dissenting views so that the state may take corrective measures.”

Adam Malik, a human rights defender, observed that producing such ideal reports by Pakistan would create more doubts as the world knows the facts and that the report seems to have been prepared by the bureaucrats without identifying the areas of improvement. He said that in January 2017, four bloggers and social media activists Asim Saeed, Waqas Goraya, Ahmed Raza Naseer, and Professor Salman Hyder were abducted and detained for more than two weeks but no one was held accountable.

“Government of Pakistan has made some good legislation including 18th constitutional amendment but such reports will damage those achievements as well,” Malik warned.

According to media reports, Goraya had complained of severe torture during the detention, and alleged that intelligence agencies were involved in his detention. Islamabad Police had registered the case of Professor Hyder but no progress has been made in the case yet.

Pakistan’s report based on the replies to the list of issues raised by CCPR will be examined during 120th session of the committee to be held from 3rd to 28th July, 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland; while shadow reports by non-governmental organizations on various issues including freedom of expression will also be shared.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), in a report submitted to the Supreme Court in January 2016 stated that it had blocked about 84,000 websites containing objectionable contents while 400,000 obscene websites have been circulated to all the Internet Service Providers for blocking on domain levels.

PTA also blocked 937 Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) and 10 websites of banned organizations for abuse of Internet and social media. According to reports numerous blogs such as “Khabaristan Times” have also been blocked without following due process of law.

Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, who has filed petition on behalf of concerned citizens, while talking to the News Lens Pakistan said that military is the part of government and criticising any government, is not a crime. Article 19 of the constitution clearly mentions the restrictions on freedom of expression that does not include army.

He said that the interior ministry, by ordering FIA for such crackdown, is violating the fundamental rights of the citizens.

Federal Investigating Agency (FIA) in its report informed the media that they had arrested 114 persons and registered 114 cases during 2017 under Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 while six bloggers (affiliated with government and opposition party), accused of criticising Army, were also interrogated.

According to civil society activists, government in the name of religion, national interest, and war on terrorism or disrespect of any institution is working to squeeze the space of free expression in the country, which is conflicting with the constitution of Pakistan.

Recently the Anti-Terrorism Court in Punjab province handed death sentence to a Shia youth, who allegedly posted blasphemous content on face book, making it first ever case of such harsh conviction on the use of social media. A case was registered against him on behalf of the State at Counter Terrorism Department, Multan under Section 295-C (use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet) and Sections 9 and 11w of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

“Silencing people in such manner is against the essence of democracy because the law does not give such absolute powers to any institution and government,” observed Barrister Ahmed.

According media reports, Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court on March 7. 2017, declared blasphemers to be terrorists and directed the government to remove blasphemous content from social media. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif directed the state machinery to find those responsible for putting blasphemous content on social media and bring them to justice without delay.

In Paragraph 20 of the replies to the List of Issues, Pakistan has mentioned that “blasphemy laws were introduced during British era in South Asia and more than 20 European countries currently have Blasphemy Laws on their statutes. The Government of Pakistan is mindful of its responsibility to prevent the misuse or abuse of the Blasphemy Law, especially by those who wish to exploit it for personal gain or interest.”

The report further says, “Blasphemy Laws aim at ensuring public order and harmony in society, by seeking to prevent inter-religious discord and incitement to violence, inter alia through hate speech. Blasphemy law in Pakistan is not discriminatory as it is based on respect for all religions. It deals with offences against all religions and applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

Contrary to the claims of government, bblasphemy laws have been a contentious issue in Pakistan where people have been murdered over such allegations. Earlier this year, a mob at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, lynched a student, Mashal Khan, after accusing him of committing blasphemy on social media.

In 2011, the former governor Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his police guard for extending his support for Asia Bibi, who was convicted under blasphemy charges. Taseer paid with his life for pointing out the victimisation of innocent and said that blasphemy laws particularly 295 B and C sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which carry the death penalty, were introduced by a military dictator and had declared it as black laws.

According to a joint submission with UPR by International Freedom of Expression Exchange-IFEX, International Network of Human Rights-RIDH and Pakistan Press Foundation-PPF, 1,054 Blasphemy cases were registered in Pakistan from 2012 to 2015; most of cases were filed against Muslims.

Aziz further added that the state is not even showing tolerance for anything that contravenes or challenges the official narrative and we just cannot afford to regress further as a state or society. Problems exist with both. “The better thing is to remain within parameters, identify issues and try and resolve them through consensus and in a lawful manner.”

She observed that temporarily the present government may have the upper hand, but history shows the tables always turn and “they” must bear that in mind.


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