‘Speak freely at your own risk’

Editor’s Note: Naveed’s article examines the absence of freedom of expression in Pakistan by looking into the constitutional, legal, political, security and religious perspectives. He traces the denial of freedom of speech and religion to the fourth amendment of the 1973 Constitution. He argues that while the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the guarantee is defeated by its distinction of Muslim and non-Muslims. The Ahmadis for instance, who are declared as non-Muslim, are left open to attacks by religious fundamentalists. The theocratic character of the legal system has impacted the habits and practices of journalists, who are “extremely careful on anything about religion or religious extremism”. Similarly, fear of reprisals from religious extremists undermines the independence of many judges. Furthermore, the military’s ownership of media houses and journalists on their payroll leads to editorial self-censorship. The fear of killings, abductions and disappearances of journalists opposed to the military is also always present. The nexus between the military and judiciary means that all issues on judicial corruption are a “forbidden topic”. Thus, Naveed concludes that the right to freedom of expression is absent due to the lack of “protection or support from the authorities or the judiciary”.


by Baseer Naveed, Senior Researcher
Asian Legal Resource Centre

While freedom of expression is today at its lowest in the history of Pakistan, in fact, Pakistani people have never truly enjoyed this freedom. During the last decade or so, various governments have claimed that they have given freedom of expression to the media. However, this is not borne out by the number of journalists that have been killed or tortured, or who have struggled as victims of unemployment due to working to the dictates of their conscience rather than the self-censorship the government and mainstream media houses would like to see. A point of confusion is the comparison of freedom of expression with the freedom of the media; the two are actually completely different and far distant from each other.

In fact, much of the self-censorship comes from the media houses themselves, as they do not wish to draw the ire of the government, judiciary, the armed forces, and particularly, the Muslim fundamentalists. The voices that really need to be heard, those of the peasant farmers and industrial labourers, are sadly ignored and silenced by the media, whose sole purpose is to gain advertising revenue. It is no secret that the media houses are ‘driven’ by the armed forces through their Inter Services Public Relations office. The armed forces and its poodle, the judiciary, neither of which have ever served the nation, have both been given the status of a sacred cow by the media. That media houses seldom allow any real criticism of the military or religious extremists is proof that freedom of expression does not exist in the country.

The restriction on the freedom of expression may be dated back to the very creation of the country. Pakistan was created on 14 August 1947, and the father of the nation gave his inaugural speech three days earlier on August 11. The speech of the Governor General-to-be, Mr. Jinnah, was itself censored, and tellingly, the censored parts were purely secular in nature: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” He further said:

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Two years after the creation of Pakistan, the ‘Objective Resolution of Pakistan’ was passed, which declared that sovereignty lay with Allah. This later became part of the constitution, denied people the right to democracy, and created guidelines on the restrictions on the freedom of expression and the freedom to practice the religion of your choice. The country was declared a theocratic society where only Islam can prevail. A clear demarcation was made between the majority and the minority, with all rights recognized for Muslims and no rights for those who were not Muslim. The concept of equality for various sections of the society was supposed to be determined on this basis.

Ex Governor of Punjab
Ex Governor of Punjab

Again, through the 1973 constitution, which was the first time anything was passed unanimously, the state took the responsibility to decide who is Muslim and who is not by making the fourth amendment in the constitution, where the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim. This amendment further encouraged Muslim fundamentalists and other such pressure groups to take the responsibility of declaring who was Muslim and who was not. In fact, freedom of expression is also limited by the constitution, which declares the Ahmadis as non-Muslim. On one hand, the constitution declares the freedom to practice any religion, but on the other hand, it places the Ahmadis in a position that leaves them open to attack by the fundamentalists. Any media supporting the Ahmadis or criticizing the fundamentalists is liable to face the same degree of violence as the Ahmadis themselves.

Although the Objective Resolution was initially part of the constitution’s preamble, during the military regime of General Zia ul Haq, it was incorporated into the constitution itself. Limited minority rights given in the original Objective Resolution were also deleted. General Zia made three famous laws: the Blasphemy laws, by inserting clause B and C, the Qisas and Diyat law, through which evidence from women is denied, and the Hadd ordinance. In sum, these three laws deny the rights of women and religious minority groups.

The fact that the rules and regulations concerning the Blasphemy laws are not being adhered to are kept out of the media: while the law stipulates that the arresting and investigating officer must be of the rank of Superintendent of Police, in fact people are being arrested by mobs, and if they are lucky, handed over alive to any police officer present.

The media is in fact extremely careful about saying anything regarding religion or the religious extremists, as they can expect no protection or support from the authorities or judiciary. This was evident in the cases of the assassinations of the governor of Punjab, Mr. Taseer, and the Federal Minister on Religious Minorities, Mr. Bhatti, where the perpetrators of the violence have either gone unpunished or are being treated as heroes. Even lawyers, meant to be protectors of the law, came out in support of the assassins, blaming the victims for blasphemy.

Although Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law is not the subject of this particular article, I mention it because it has a direct effect on the freedom of expression: while the constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of religion, the actual situation in the country is very different, and anyone speaking out in support of the minorities soon faces attacks ranging from hate speech to physical violence, and even death.

The Blasphemy Law has been made a killer. If any person is accused of blasphemy, particularly on the charges of defiling the name of the last prophet (PBUH), he has to face the death penalty from the law or state, and if not, then fundamentalists will murder him. In a case of two Christians who were sentenced on section 295 B of the Blasphemy Law, they were released by high court Justice Arif Bhatti as they were illiterate scavengers. After their release they left Pakistan but the Justice was murdered for releasing the blasphemers.

Similarly, when the former Governor of Punjab supported Asia Bibi against her sentencing on blasphemy charges, he was killed. The killer was given the death sentence by a session court judge, who had to subsequently leave the country as fundamentalists announced that he was liable to be killed because he had ‘given punishment to the hero of Islam’.

The media is also suppressed by the military when it attempts to report on the nexus between the armed forces and the militant jihadists. According to one report, about 10 journalists were kidnapped by security forces apparently belonging to military secret services in 2006, while performing their professional duties. The report also revealed that the very few journalists based in tribal areas in Balochistan are caught in the crossfire between security forces, jihadist militants and tribal chiefs fighting each other to control the area.

General Zia ul Haq
General Zia ul Haq

Another topic strictly forbidden to journalists is political, military and judicial corruption. These institutions have become sacred cows, untouchable by anyone other than their own hierarchy. Any journalists brave enough to highlight this corruption are liable to face the same fate as Mr. Taseer and others.

Freedom of expression is often restricted on the pretext of vulgarity, morality and obscenity, three items that have never been clearly defined in the law or by any court. This does not deter the authorities however, or those with vested interests and the media houses, from promptly making use of them to enforce self censorship.

In an attempt to define these issues, the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority called for a consultative conference. As no one turned up. It is hoped that by mutual consent they will be able to put forward proposals to the apex court of the land.

It can thus be seen that through the country’s constitution and laws, there are many restrictions on the freedom of expression and freedom of the media. The “Official Secret Act of 1923” is still operative; anything perceived as against the state or prejudicial to state interests is to be tried under this act. Classified matters cannot be published or even spoken of. The Safety and Telegraph Acts are also used for curbing the right of freedom of expression. The Newspapers, Periodicals and News Agencies Ordinance, 2002, is still in force, according to which no periodical or newspaper can be printed without permission from the Ministry of Information. This is a clear violation of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the constitution of Pakistan. PEMRA is a regulatory body which gives out licenses for the production of any type of electronic channel; permission for this has to be taken from the government. Unlike in Europe or the USA, Pakistani individuals or organizations cannot simply make their own radio or TV channel as per their whims.

Contempt of court is another method of restricting freedom of expression. While the government says there is no law regarding contempt of court, the Supreme Court relies on the Contempt of Court Ordinance of 2004 to minimize freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to the decisions of the court.

There is a draft law on freedom of information in circulation, but it can be termed as mere lip service to show that something is being done. It does not define who will decide what is secret and what is not. Contrary to global practices, the government has kept everything secret until it is declared to be made public. Data collection and maintenance mechanisms are very poor in Pakistan. The draft law allows the government and its agencies to classify anything they want to be exempt from being made public, without any explanation necessary. The procedure to declare something secret has not been revealed. And the big question is, who exactly is authorized to declare anything secret?

Finally, Pakistan’s Constitution declares quite clearly that Pakistan is an Islamic country. With the country run on a religious basis, there simply cannot be any genuine freedom of expression. Moreover, after military rule ended in 1985, pressure groups and fundamentalists took on the state’s role to implement their own rules, as well as its tactics of coercion and intimidation. The role of the government has thus been reduced to a minimum, with fundamentalists and the military increasingly calling the shots.

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