Follow Us:

Pakistan’s battle for free speech

The notifications being sent recently to all TV channels seem to suggest that only state-sanctioned propaganda is favoured, with an emphasis on not broadcasting items that “do not build a positive image of the country”.

Usama Khilji |

There is no channel of information-sharing and political activity that has been free from attempts at censorship in Pakistan this year. Be it television, print, radio, online media, or events and political rallies, there has been ‘pressure from above’ or direct silencing, either through the use of draconian laws or extra-legal measures.

This year has been eventful, to put it mildly, when it comes to political events. We saw the rise of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement that galvanised popular support in calling for an end to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings by state functionaries and their proxies. It was also this year that, after having been disqualified for a record third time from premiership, Nawaz Sharif along with his heir-apparent daughter was jailed right before the 2018 elections which led to Imran Khan’s ascent to the Prime Minister’s Office.

It is of much concern that legitimate voices peacefully calling for the implementation of the Constitution are being silenced so brazenly. The new modus operandi seems to emulate authoritarian and monarchic models of attempting to silence any kind of dissent; something that is the cornerstone of progress and accountability.

The notifications being sent recently to all TV channels seem to suggest that only state-sanctioned propaganda is favoured, with an emphasis on not broadcasting items that “do not build a positive image of the country”. It is ironic that exactly such policing of media impacts the image of the country: Pakistan ranks an embarrassing 139 out of 180 countries on the world press freedom index by the independent media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

Such suggestions go beyond the mandate of the regulator which is officially supposed to improve standards, enlarge the choice available to citizens, increase access to and optimise the free flow of information. Similarly, online platforms where citizens thought they could breathe more freely have come under aggressive attack by the state apparatus.

Several users have received notices from Twitter warning them that officials in Pakistan have requested for their tweets to be restricted or deleted, and the latest transparency reports of both Facebook and Twitter show a manifold increase in the number of requests for user data as well as content restrictions.

In fact, the highest number of user data requests was received by Facebook from the Pakistani government. Sections 20 and 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, use overly broad language to legalise online censorship, something that the new parliament must amend in order to give credence to the fundamental rights of citizens.

Such online surveillance and warnings, threats, and extra-legal steps further censorship as they create fear among citizens of being watched and facing undue consequences for speaking up. This mistrust then manifests itself further in other aspects of governance by the state. Websites of news platforms and political parties have also not been spared the ire of the ‘censors’.

The leftist Awami Workers Party’s website was blocked prior to the July 2018 general elections despite the party having been registered officially with the Election Commission of Pakistan. No explanation has been given yet by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority for blocking a political party’s website.

The PTI-led government needs to come clean on its policy on censorship once and for all in line with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It must also do so in light of Pakistan’s international commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Pakistan was a major contributor during its inception in 1948, and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

Both stress the importance of freedom of speech in a democracy. How is the country expected to progress if citizens are not allowed to raise concerns and questions about state policies? Has the government decided to renege on the social contract with citizens whereby it is supposed to protect fundamental freedoms and rights? Are citizens expected to blindly peddle state propaganda and not question state excesses? Should families of the disappeared and those killed in fake encounters remain silent? Are journalists supposed to only report on statements of government officials?

There are a few confidence-building measures vis-à-vis freedom of speech, arguably the most paramount right for progress, pending on part of the state in order for citizens to regain trust in the system and not dismiss it as biased and oppressive.

Impunity for those who threaten and attack harbingers of information and change must stop, once and for all. Threats to, and abductions and killings of journalists and activists make the environment more volatile and damage Pakistan’s international image. Those responsible for intimidating citizens must be investigated and face legal consequences, no matter how powerful their backing.

Rather than silencing critics and employing propaganda against those who do not see eye-to-eye with its policies, the state should make use of its information apparatus to defend itself in light of facts and evidence. Citizens must not be antagonised by their own state.

The only red line that citizens must not be allowed to cross is of incitement to violence, whereby there is a danger of direct harm to individuals or groups because of hateful speech. The colonial tradition codified in our law and regurgitated in new laws, whereby cases have been registered against citizens for criticising state policies on the basis of “cyberterrorism” defined as “creating a sense of fear or panic in the government” should be discontinued.

A government that relies on citizens’ taxes and votes for functioning must be accountable to rather than hostile towards its citizenry. This is the logical purpose of instituting freedom of speech and press as a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution, and the right to information under Article 19-A. The PTI-led government must once and for all initiate rights-based policies for the -protection of citizens in order to effectively recuse itself from the growing criticism of it being a -democratic façade for a dictatorship.