'These are not lawful restrictions on the right to freedom of expression under the Constitution', signatories say
KARACHI: An open letter protesting and expressing concerns about the Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill 2020 passed recently by the Punjab Assembly has attracted more than 300 signatures, as of reporting time.
The letter, now open to the public, has so far attracted signatures from 314 individuals, including lawyers, activists, educationists, academics, artists, journalists, doctors, architects, publishers, athletes, philanthropists, civil society organisations (CSOs), historians, community organisers and workers, economists, and members of the business community, as well as members of the Punjab Assembly itself.
On July 23, the Punjab Assembly had passed the Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill 2020, granting the Directorate General of Public Relations (DGPR) the power to visit and inspect any printing press, publishing house or bookstore and confiscate any book, before or after printing.
The new law bars the printing and publication of objectionable material and also bars the publisher, editor or translator from printing or publishing any book and material that consists of photographs or pictures of suicide bombers, terrorists, except as required by law enforcing agencies for purposes of investigation.
The DGPR, as per the new law, would also have the power to refuse permission to import, print or publish a book “if it is prejudicial to the national interest, culture, religious and sectarian harmony.”
"The vesting of such immense arbitrary, unfettered and unilateral power in a single bureaucrat is in breach of even those reasonable restrictions that can be imposed on the right to freedom of expression under the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 ('the Constitution')," the letter reads.
It underlines that the function of the DGPR is "the publicity of the government and handling public relations of the government".
"There is no rational or legal basis for the DGPR to be granted competence by the legislature to make determinations on matters entrusted to him under this Bill," the letter says.
It expresses concerns about the Muttahida Ulema Board, which would be receiving the confiscated books, under Section 8(4) of the Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill, noting that there is no explanation as to who is part of the Board or whether its members are competent "to decide what is prejudicial to national interest and culture".
It further notes with concern that the Bill does not define "objectionable material" and how its ambiguous wording may lead to violations of Article 25 of the Constitution.
"There is a pressing need for this Bill to be reviewed in its entirety, as it amounts to excessive delegation of powers to the executive," it reads. "Our Constitutional framework is based on the trichotomy of powers. [...] Such unbridled power to determine what amounts to objectionable content essentially amounts to handing over power of the legislature to an executive official".
Highlighting the DGPR's powers in the matter, it says the wording is obscure and the "unchecked power is bound to be abused by executive functionaries when they perform the functions of prosecution and judge to punish any breach under the law".
"Such delegation of power amounts to vesting judicial powers in the executive, which is in breach of principles of trichotomy of power and separation of powers," the letter adds.
Most importantly, the concerned members of the civil society underscore that "these are not lawful restrictions on the right to freedom of expression under the Constitution".
Any interference in the right to freedom of expression is only legitimate if "it is provided by law; it pursues a legitimate aim; and it is necessary for a democratic society", as per a three-part test contained in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Pakistan has been a state party since June 23, 2010, they add.
In addition, the concerned individuals stress on the fact that the powers of confiscation under the Bill are "violative of Article 10-A of the Constitution" and that any individual against whom an order may be considered should be given a chance to present their viewpoint in a hearing.
The letter also says a "requirement of four gratis copies placed on publishers and printers" is a hindrance in the rights of businesses granted under Article 18.
"This Bill is also in breach of Article 19A of the Constitution, which protects the right to access to information. The concepts of the glory of Islam, national interest, culture and religious and sectarian harmony cannot be allowed to be misused and become a tool for whimsical, arbitrary, subjective, unstructured, dictatorial or unreasonable censorship and control of publications," it says.
"What is peculiar is why a democratic forum would behave in such a dictatorial manner, disrespecting the very Constitution that empowers it," it adds. "We also fear that certain provisions of the proposed Bill may fuel sectarian tensions in the province, which would have a spillover effect(s) throughout the country."
Underlining the citizens' right to the freedom of expression in a democratic society, it says the Punjab Assembly has neither established the "necessity for this bill" nor "a pressing social need that required passage of this Bill".
The letter, towards the end, mentions that the Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Bill 2020 may also have a detrimental impact on the domestic industry, which may suffer as "such prohibitory legislation may end up encouraging citizens to get hold of online pirated versions of publications that they wish to read", thereby negatively affecting local publishers and distributors.