In a recent move, a bill to make amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) 1898 has been approved by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Interior for criminalising defamation. It legitimises action taken against those who are guilty of ridiculing the armed forces. The bill was introduced by Amjad Ali Khan, who is a member of the National Assembly from the ruling party – Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Currently, Section 500 of the PPC states: “Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.” Whereas, the proposed amendment will introduce Section 500-A, which states: “Punishment for intentional ridiculing of the Armed Forces etc. Whosoever intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the Armed Forces of Pakistan or a member thereof, he shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees, or with both.” The bill, however, has received criticism from members of the ruling party and the opposition parties. The amendment is only seen as a catalyst for stifling freedom of expression granted by the constitution, all done so under the premise of national security.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and introducing such legislations compromises a foundational component of society. To no one’s surprise, this law is likely to be used in retaliation for raising issues or debates that are of public concern. In contrast, the threat of prosecution and punishment will deter citizens from conducting open discussions. Moreover, the idea of initiating criminal proceedings against a person critiquing a state institution that is bound to ensure his safety and protection is an over-stretch. The bill highlights the declining democratic values and ethos of Pakistan and the ways in which different streams of authoritarianism are gradually surfacing. If the freedom of speech and expression is any yardstick to gauge the embeddedness of democratic ideals, then the case of Pakistan is worrisome.
The point one needs to ponder is that if an institution is honourably serving the objectives provided under the constitution, the need of ridiculing or defaming such an institution seems rather illogical. It is only when respective institutions extend their power and exert control into the political realm that a reaction is witnessed.
In today’s age of digital media, the flow of information has become highly decentralised, thus eroding the monopoly of states in controlling narratives. The rising number of enforced disappearances mainly targeting political activists and journalists critical of the policies undertaken by civilian or military leadership indicates the control that the institutions are practising. Although the ruling government looks forward to criminalising enforced disappearances, laws of different nature with relatively new amendments are being tabled. Thus, the democratic deficit is expanding and, mechanisms that can aid in strengthening governance within Pakistan are restrained.
Many leading international organisations and authorities have called for decriminalising defamation laws, especially, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of the Right to Free Speech has declared criminal defamation laws unjustified as it puts restriction on the freedom of expression. The rapporteur has underlined the requirement of abolishing such laws. The majority of countries across the world have criminalised the defamation laws that are in place. However, the trend is witnessing a gradual change as 30 states have either decriminalised defamation or have introduced certain reforms in the past two decades.
Given the history of Pakistan, there is no end to the admiration and high esteem that the citizens have held for the armed forces as they continue to defend the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan. The point one needs to ponder is that if an institution is honourably serving the objectives provided under the constitution, the need of ridiculing or defaming such an institution seems rather illogical. It is only when respective institutions extend their power and exert control into the political realm that a reaction is witnessed. Areas of governance and policymaking do not fall under the domain of the military. It is precisely when the objectives of an institution become controversial that recoil is observed at multiple fronts. Equally important is addressing anxieties that citizens currently have and why have they reached a point where the practices of state institutions are being critiqued and ridiculed. The trend shows the far-spread public discontent with the performance of respective institutions. These laws do not favour the citizens and are employed to control dissent, which in the socio-political structure of Pakistan is not an aberration but a norm. It is about time that the relevant institutions address the reasons for the defamatory tone and tenor of its citizens as a critique of such kind is more so a by-product of bad governance.