Freedom of speech: Cases during, after Musharraff

Editor’s Note: In this article, Reyes examines 28 individual cases, from 2004 to 2015, on free speech during and after Pervez Musharraff’s regime. Reyes took a comparative analysis in approaching this question: would regime change, from military to civilian rule, lead to protection of the right to freedom of expression? In conclusion, Reyes argues that Musharraff’s resignation in 2007 had not altered the resilient habits, practices, and rules designed at curbing free speech. The military, even after Musharraff, remains a powerful political institution; the religious clerics and fundamentalists who articulate the ideological basis of Pakistan’s theocratic legal order, also form an influential institution. Neither the military nor religious clerics are accountable to law. The civilian authority is caught between powerful institutions that refuse to be subordinated by democratic rules.


by Danilo Reyes, PhD Candidate, City University, Hong Kong

This article analyses 28 cases, during and after the Musharraff regime, on the exercise of free speech in Pakistan. The purpose of this comparative analysis is to answer this question: would the change of regime, from military rule to restoration of civilian rule in 2008, lead to better protection of freedom of expression? On imposing restrictions, how does a civilian government differ from its military regime counterpart? The cases covered in this article are not exhaustive; however, there are observable patterns where we could infer some generalizations in explaining the phenomenon of violations on free speech under the military regime and civilian regime.

Under Musharraff: Military regime

In 2007, at the height of the lawyers’ movement, Pervez Musharraff’s military regime targeted the mass media to suppress the growing protests. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) banned Geo TV for “defying orders not to broadcast coverage of protests”. The government-funded ad placements in Daily Dawn were also withdrawn for its “open policy on editorials”. Protesting lawyers and judges were arrested for openly defying the military’s order to stand down. This mode of information control—by banning broadcast network, economic sabotage of newspaper outlets, and arrest of protesters—had since been the order of the day under Musharraff. Even before the onset of the lawyer’s movement, in 2006, it banned four websites in Balochistan for “spreading misinformation”. They closed down a radio station—Mast FM 103—for “its criticism of the government’s corruption”. They closed another TV station, Sindh Television, without giving them any explanations. They targeted journalists by arresting and torturing them.

Under Musharraff, the law is what the military say it is. Legally, there are Constitutional provisions that restrictions on free speech “should not be arbitrary or excessive in nature”. However, under the military regime, this test of “reasonableness” is routinely disregarded by the authorities to control and suppress information that could generate dissent and discontent at the government’s performance. The ban on Sindh Television, in which the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) gave only “verbal instructions” on why they are being banned, is one example. In most cases, restrictions on one’s freedom to communicate—to impart, search and receive—are not only unreasonable but arbitrary. Restrictions are imposed to protect the interests of the military regime in power, and not for the interests and protection of the public, as the “reasonableness test” requires. For instance, Mast FM 103 was closed down to protect those they were criticising for corruption. They imposed internet censorships, notably in Balochistan, justifying them on the pretext of “spreading misinformation”, but ultimately the military regime wanted to control information.

When people’s freedom to communicate is repressed, they react strongly and develop forms of protest to express their discontent. This protest of infringement on people’s right to communicate would result in the arrest of hundreds of human rights and political activists. In 2006, 400 political and human rights activists protesting against internet controls were arrested and detained during Musharraff’s visit to Balochistan. The military crackdown on activists was justified on the pretext of enforcing the Public Order Ordinance. Here, the chaos was a result of the government’s censorship, yet laws were also used to insulate the military from any accountability by suppressing and putting the protesters in “public order”. Like the Baloch, the Kashmiris are also considered a religious and ethnic minority in Pakistan. In Baseer Naveed’s article in this report, he notes the theocratic character of Pakistan’s legal system. It is not surprising that books written by and about Kashmir would also be banned after pressure from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

What is common under Musharraff’s regime is that: First, the civilian institutions of the government are subordinate to the military. The institutions that ought to ensure that the restrictions on free speech are “reasonable” and “not arbitrary”, in fact only take orders from the military establishment, such as PEMRA and MIB. Second, the restrictions on freedom to communicate conflate with the government’s security policy and religious hegemony—for the “Glory of Islam”. Here, the combination of policies on security and religious hegemony give rise to a potent tool of repression. It explains why in areas like Balochistan, repression by the military is heavy; both security and political interests are to be protected. It seemed expedient to bracket all restrictions, regardless of whether they are reasonable or not. In doing so, they protect their political and economic interests in the region. Thirdly, the military rule deepened the discontent as a result of interference by the military and the lack of autonomy of civilian institutions, like the judiciary. The regime change in 2008 gave rise to expectations of respect and protection of rights, which the civilian led government failed to deliver.

Post-Musharraff: Under civilian rule

Nearly nine years under civilian rule, though Musharraff failed to secure his comeback in politics and is no longer in power, there is still continuity of the habits, practices, and violations on freedoms to communicate once common during his time. Clearly, Musharraff’s resignation has not led to change in the fundamental infrastructure of the military regime. The result of 15 cases analysed from 2008 to 2015 shows that the methods of oppression, such as bans on TV and radio stations critical of the government; arrest, detention, murder, and prosecution on false charges of activists critical of the state security policy, extends beyond the military regime. Moreover, attacks by Muslim fundamentalists on people exercising religious secularism have increased. Legal repression by the judiciary through contempt of court, even for legitimate criticisms of judicial performance, occurs frequently. Strangely, the judiciary restored by public protest against the military’s judicial interference, is now targeting the dissatisfied public critical of its performance.

On the media, the civilian government once again targeted Geo TV, who was once the target of the military regime. Their broadcast was banned in 2008 and eventually their licence to broadcast was cancelled in 2014 for protesting against the attacks on their TV anchor, Hamid Mir. Here, demanding accountability for attacks on journalists under the civilian government has led to the cancellation of their licence to broadcast. Censorships on broadcast networks have expanded, now including foreign media organisations based in Pakistan, like the BBC. Attacks on broadcast and print journalists, including those working for foreign newspapers such as AP News Agency, have also increased. This phenomenon shows the increasing insecurity amongst journalists. From 2008 to 2015, one journalist was arrested, one abducted and tortured, and four faced threats—one of them suffered a heart attack after he was illegally dismissed by his newspaper company for fear of being prosecuted for blasphemy. The documented cases involving attacks on journalists are not exhaustive, but they show some observable patterns on the personal insecurity of journalists.

The military have also become more assertive in interfering in public discussions. They expanded their mode of censorship from internet and broadcast controls into directly controlling discussions at academic institutions. Their means of control is accompanied with the threat of the use of force, in one case fatal by murdering a peace activist who defied the military’s ban on discussion about Balochistan. Take the case of Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhter. He gave direct orders to the Lahore University “not to hold talks (on Balochistan) to avoid students having alternative view”. Such talks, in Lt. Gen. Akhter’s instructions, could “harm the security establishment”. Clearly, what is meant by “harm to security” is left to Lt. Gen. Akhter’s broad and subjective interpretation. This practice is reminiscent of Musharraff’s period. He, however, had support from the civilian institutions; no less than the Chief Minister of Punjab. This shows the continuity of the subordination of the civilian institutions to the military. The murder of peace activist Sabeen Mahmud, for defying Lt. Gen. Akhter’s order on holding talks on Balochistan, gives rise to a new phenomenon of repression on free speech: the certainty of the use of coercive and deadly force by the military. The direct involvement of the ISI in intimidating, arresting, abducting, and murdering journalists has become more apparent in recent times. It shows that the military is still in command over civilian institutions, as it was during Musharraff’s time, to protect its political and economic interests in Balochistan. They, however, could justify it on the pretext of enforcing its security policy.

The influence of Muslim fundamentalists has also expanded the theocratic character of the legal system. They ban those religions and their practices that are opposed to the state’s definition of Islam. They banned secular and nationalist organisations; threatened an Ahmadi editor, for “publishing a biography of a retired judge, poetry & physics book”, and threats against journalists of prosecution for blasphemy have continued. The rise of Muslim fundamentalists and their influence in state affairs—like military and intelligence establishments, was unprecedented. For instance, in the case of Umer Cheema, a journalist working for The News International, the fundamentalists’ influence was so strong that it could immobilize local government and the local courts. They frustrated his demands for accountability on Muslim fundamentalists by deliberately not acting on his complaints against them. In Javeria Younes’s article in this report, she notes a pattern on how and why cases involving religious sentiments and Muslims fundamentalists are deliberately not acted upon. These cases are routinely delayed to avoid conclusions that could provoke the sentiments of the established religious and legal order.

In conclusion, it appears that the resignation of Musharraff in 2008, and the restoration of a civilian led government, has not altered the military’s infrastructure used in suppressing legitimate exercise of free speech. They maintained a stronghold of their base of power from military regime extending to civilian rule. This phenomenon of the civilian authority’s subordination to the military—the state of affairs during Musharraff’s military regime—has continued under the civilian led government.

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