In this edition of article 2, we focus on the freedom of expression. The right to express freely—to convey and receive information—is fundamental in the functioning of a democratic regime. It allows any individuals to express their thoughts, correct state abuses, and to demand accountability for abuses of power. The absence of free speech is often associated with the absence of freedom. In Asia however, more governments are imposing regulations and punishment on speech that leaders do not want to hear. In Thailand, comments against the monarchy are a criminal offense, and the offenders are prosecuted for lese majeste with rigorous punishment. In Singapore, public speeches are subject to regulations, and those who defy this rule are sent to prison. When speech is regulated, the regime is either authoritarian or undemocratic.
However, Pakistan is off this radar. Pakistan, formally an “Islamic Republic”, is widely perceived as a representative government adhering to Islamic laws. It is neither an authoritarian regime nor under a military regime. It has a long history of its regime cycling from military government to civilian rule. From 1947 up to now, it was under military rule for 32 years, and under a civilian government for ten years. The rest of the time the country was ruled by an authoritarian government. Even under civilian rule, Pakistan continuously faces threats of power grabs from the military, who refuse to be subordinates to civilian rulers. Pakistan’s long history of influence by religious clerics intersects with the military’s political interests. While clerics shape the laws, ideologies and practices to make sure they are consistent with Islam, the military are portrayed as “warriors” who defend Islamic faith. In schools, curriculums are designed to teach the students—from childhood to adulthood—to idolize the military as the country’s “heroes” or “warriors”. The military has a more prestigious and esteemed place in Pakistani society than intellectuals. Any criticisms against the military are prohibited by law.
The nexus between the religious clerics and the military is such that the former is in charge of maintaining the theocratic character of the regime by law, and the latter uses its force against anyone defying this. Their alliance is known as the Mullah-Military alliance. The clerics need the military for its force ready for their use; and the military needs the clerics, for the ideological legitimacy to justify their use of force. However, both the clerics and the military, as this report will show, curb free speech by imposing restrictions and punishment of various forms—from imprisonment to killing—on anyone who defies this. After Pervez Musharraff resigned in 2007, despite routine abuses and violations by religious clerics and the military in curbing free speech, Pakistan, unlike other Asian countries, appears to have escaped criticisms on its institutionalized violations of free speech.
When a country is based on religious ideas, and where protection of the Islamic faith is the function of the government, there can be no expectations that anything other than Islamic perspectives would be discussed or tolerated. As this report will show, this situation has led to religious discrimination and violence. It also perpetuates power among the Muslim clerics as well as religious fundamentalists. Through the school syllabus, while warriors are portrayed as heroes, the development of research and science does not receive institutional support, obstructing the further development of the country despite the potential of its scientists and historians. Islamic and Pakistan studies are compulsory subjects in schools; the indoctrination of students in religious ethos and idealization of the military begins early. As a result, values of violence and intolerance have become dominant in society. Although the Muslims clerics and religious fundamentalists are not popularly elected, their influence and control of the country’s social and political affairs is far greater than that of those elected to office.
This report will further show that restrictions on websites in areas where the military subjugates ethnic and religious minorities, and the prosecution of persons using social media to critique the government, has aggravated violence. Bans, restrictions and prohibition of free speech have given rise to popular dissent and discontent, rather than maintaining order.
The report contains eight articles and an interview. Danilo Reyes examines 28 cases on free speech in his article, during and after Musharraff’s regime. He takes a comparative approach in exploring whether or not the change of regime from military to civilian rule protects free speech. Articles by Baseer Naveed and Bushra Khaliq comment on repercussions on individuals who speak their mind. Naveed looks at the absence of institutional protection to persons whose life is at risk due to their criticisms. Khaliq comments on the oppression women experience due to dominance of religious leaders and Muslim fundamentalists.
In two of her articles, Javeria Younes comments on the outcomes of free speech judicial proceedings. She argues that terrorism, extremism and blasphemy are often used as justifications to assert the legality of violating free speech. Younes also comments on the repercussions of the proposed bill on censorship, which would further violate free speech. Moosvi Abdul Rahim argues that access to information on matters of public interests was never a priority of the state. In tracing the legacy of protest movements in Pakistan, Syed Ehtisham re-examines the students’ movement in Pakistan. Lastly, Dr. Tauseef Ahmed Khan, who writes on the historical evolution of the mass media, argues that in most developed democracies today, it is the technology of communications, and the institutional guarantees on the practices of free speech, that led to democratization.
This report is our modest contribution to ongoing advocacy on the protection of rights in Pakistan. While the report is not exhaustive, we hope it can contribute to conversation on issues of protection and promotion of free speech in the country. article 2 would like to thank all those who contributed to the report, notably the victims, their families and local organisations.