Does state even understand what freedom of speech means?
Freedom of speech is considered a basic human right and an important pillar of democracy. In a democratic and egalitarian society, this concept offers people a chance to engage in debate and to bring forward their opinions. Debate, dissent and discourse are important elements of a civilised and democratic society. Therefore, all successful democracies set forth freedom of speech (FoS), a key component of democracy, and defend the right of people to express their opinions freely. Article 19 of United Nations Human Rights Declaration (UNHRD) clearly states that the freedom of speech is an important right which should be extended to all human beings equally. Similarly, constitution of Pakistan also places freedom of speech in article 19.
However, recently we have seen much ado by governments in extension of this basic right to people and there has been a clear onslaught on FoS across the world. Anarchist governments and dictatorships fear FoS because it can expose the misuse of authority and corruption and can challenge the actions which affect people negatively. In such countries FoS is curbed and censorship is enforced. Pakistan is a democracy where people choose their representatives and have the right to question them as well. In spite of the acknowledgement of FoS in constitution of Pakistan, this freedom is non-existent and the space for dissent, debate and discourse is constantly being shrunken by the prevalence of undemocratic attitude.
Unfortunately, article 19 in our constitution is quite ambiguous and instead of safeguarding the right to freedom of expression, it provides more opportunities for devising laws which curb it. Unlike the first amendment of US Declaration of Independence which safeguards FoS and stops the government from making laws which could undermine FoS, our article 19 threatens FoS.
Article 19 of constitution of Pakistan states, “Every 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.”
The problem here is the subjectivity, which paves the ways for laws which promote censorship instead of laws that protect public space for debate and discourse. Consequently, many of the present day laws implementing censorship can be seen to be derived from article 19 instead of being discouraged by it; such as cybercrime law, maintenance of public order (MPO 2016) and Punjab Sound System Act 2015.
While the hate speech against minorities is still a serious concern in the country, subsequent governments have used the law to control political opposition and media. What is a democracy without free media and political opposition? A religious cleric and his students openly supported Daesh in their statements and invited them to Pakistan and no action was taken against them. Another religious organisation openly incited violence against minorities, government and institutions for two years but they were only stopped when the things got out of hand. Wall chalking, blasphemy accusations and labelling people with strong connotations is the norm of the day and nobody bats an eye.
Recently, a LUMS professor and an activist, Ammar Ali Jan arranged a peaceful protest and he was booked under eight different charges within a day. Amazingly, the FIR was launched against him within minutes and his house was raided by police within hours and he was arrested without being presented with any warrant or court order. Freedom of press is also being curbed by government and state apparatus. Several journalists have been fired, TV channels taken off air, payments of advertisements to media groups stopped and activists booked under sedition charges – all these attempts to control media. In the 2018 report of Press Freedom Index, by Reporters without Borders Pakistan was ranked 139th out of 180 countries for freedom of the press. Freedom House listed the media in Pakistan as “partly free” in its latest report. The situation of freedom of press is bleak in Pakistan.
In a recent statement, federal minister of information called media a greater problem. Media is a pillar of democracy and if the government’s representatives see media as a problem and a threat, I do not know what else can be more unfortunate than this. This Goebbels approach has also led government to launch a strict campaign against people showing dissent on social media in coming days. This is being done on the pretext of controlling extremist narratives on social media but in the light of recent events, the intentions of government are highly doubtful. Just on the next day of information minister’s above statement, four people were booked for making viral videos against prime minister. The present party in the power is the same party that launched “Go Nawaz Go” slogan campaigns against then sitting prime minister, burnt utility bills, called for civil obedience and staged a sit-in in front of parliament for 126 days; that too not in a very distant past.
Both federal minister of information and information minister of biggest province of country showed reservations on the use of social media and tried to define Freedom of Speech according to their own understanding, which I respectfully want to remind them is not the actual understanding of freedom of speech. There are surely boundaries but there are no ifs and buts in FoS. The simple rule of thumb here is the “harm principle.” Incitement of violence, libel, slander, privacy and incitement to violence are the kind of the limitations of FoS which common sense also dictates. Dissent and discourse, such as criticism of political parties, debating ideas, peaceful protests, asking questions and holding public offices and institutions accountable to public are the prerequisites of democracy and should not be censored due to certain political tendencies and agendas.
There are already enough laws in place and they should be used against on-ground perpetrators, which is the major objective of National Action Plan (NAP). Subsequently, extremist narrative can be controlled and purged from madressahs, syllabus and media. Extremist elements should be stopped and punished by legal means. Extremist narrative present on social or print media is not a cause but a symptom. If it incites violence, there should be strict action against the perpetrators through legal process. An honest implementation of NAP will intrinsically dilute that narrative. NAP should not be used as an excuse to curb political dissent, genuine opposition and justified criticism on mainstream or social media. On 5th of February, internationally banned organisations arranged rallies across Pakistan without any interference but the people who were arrested by police were of civil society engaged in a peaceful demonstration.
For fake news and false reporting, making fascist laws and censoring media is not the solution. People should be educated on how to distinguish between fake reporting and how to develop critical thinking which could tell real news from fake instead of shutting down voices and creating more grievances in dissenting groups.
The ambiguity in constitutional law is of deep concern. It should be challenged by legal experts and efforts should be made by parliament to amend it. It is surprising how no one talks about loopholes in the constitution and the derived constitutional law. The ambiguous concepts of puritanical versions of nationalism and fundamentalism have been purposefully embedded in the constitution. The criticism is shut down by calling constitution sacred. Constitution is only sacred in the manner that everyone has to follow it. It is not a divine document. We can debate it and we can criticise it with a democratic spirit. The undemocratic forces should be stopped from taking benefit of these loopholes and ambiguities and this can only be achieved by removing ambiguities from the constitution such as those present in Article 19. There is a need to clearly define the terminologies in a way that not only the spirit of the basic human right such as FoS is preserved but the way of formulation of laws against its spirit may also be stopped. Only then can we lay the foundations of a truly just and democratic society where healthy debate and discourse is encouraged.
The author is a PhD in natural sciences and a teacher. He is also an op-ed writer and writes a blog named Random Incinerations. Follow him on Twitter @akifzeb.