Interview of Mr. Naseer Memon on freedom of expression

Article 2: How has freedom of expression been curtailed over the years in Pakistan, in the name of religion?

Extremist elements operating in the name of religion and certain government laws have put several strictures on the freedom of expression. Media, civil society and other public forums are under self-censorship to avoid landing into any trouble. Civil society organisations and human rights activists are constantly being stalked for their views and thoughts.

Article 2: Has objective resolution becoming an operative part of the constitution through Article 2 affected freedom of expression in Pakistan.

Article 2 which states that Islam shall be the State religion of Pakistan, is often used as a ploy by religious outfits. Recently, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke about making Pakistan a liberal country, religious groups accused him of violating fundamentals of the Constitution. Various faith groups have their own interpretation of an Islamic state, and they liberally use it to curtail freedom of expression.

Article 2: In your opinion, have the courts taken the liberty to protect freedom of speech, have they expanded the interpretation of Article 19, and the restriction imposed by it?

There is very little that courts could do. They are pre-occupied with several other issues. Freedom of expression is a much neglected area. A caveat in Article 19, the “reasonable restriction imposed by law”, empowers the government to silence voices in the name of public and national interest. These vague terms of “public and national interest” are always subject to the definition suited to those in power.

Article 2: What is your take on the blasphemy law being used to curtail the religious minority’s right to freedom of speech?

Not just the minority, but a large number of Muslim citizens have become victims, have been accused of blasphemy charges. In fact, only a few cases reach the court; verdicts are given on the spot by mob courts committing brutal murders. Every citizen has become a custodian of this law, and their acts often get endorsement. Perpetrators are less considered criminals, and more emerge as heroes. The situation has reached a level where just a comment on this law is construed as an act of blasphemy.

Article 2: What role can civil society organisations play in promoting and safeguarding this fundamental right?

Civil society can raise its voice, educate people and lobby with the government on these issues. It is a long struggle and not an easy undertaking. However, the political leadership has to demonstrate greater commitment, as they have been mandated by citizens to guarantee their fundamental and constitutional rights.

Article 2: In your opinion, how will the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crime Bill affect the general public’s right to freedom of expression?

It will further squeeze the space of expression. Social media will be a major casualty, where people will have to skillfully edit/censor their views to avoid any charges of violation. There is an apprehension that such laws are used more against human rights activists and political workers than extremist groups.

Article 2: How should the word “reasonable” under Article 19 be construed by the court?

This is a very vague term that is often defined by people in power as it suits them. I am afraid the court will not be able to provide a standard definition that can clearly demarcate reasonable from unreasonable restriction.

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