Friday July 12, 2024

Striking down sedition

By Editorial Board
March 31, 2023

In an ideal world, or in a truly democratic country, there should be no debate about any kind of dissent – whether protests or journalism or civil rights movements – being equated with sedition. And yet, over decades and through governments both civilian and dictatorial, we have seen politicians, lawyers, human rights activists being charged with this colonial-era law that goes back 150 years and should have had no place in a democracy at all. Thankfully, yesterday the Lahore High Court agreed with this idea and struck down Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code – the country’s ‘sedition law’. According to Section 124-A, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the federal or provincial government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.” Needless to say, this relic of a law had been seen as an affront to democracy and human rights.

The LHC’s Justice Shahid Karim gave the order in response to a set of petitions filed by citizens challenging the sedition law on the grounds that the government used it against its rivals. The petitions would not be wrong in that we have seen how – from Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib to Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari to a whole set of journalists, activists, civil rights leaders – there is an unending list of people who have been charged under this law for having had the temerity to speak up against the power setup of the time. Gandhi had once called sedition as having been “designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen” – and this is what it has been for citizens in Pakistan. Over the years, journalists and human rights defenders have been reminding successive governments that terming any individual a traitor or charging them with sedition is not a charge that should be made lightly and that anyone who seeks their rights or speaks their minds cannot be treated as The Enemy.

It may be recalled that back in 2020, an attempt was made to strike down the sedition law by parliament – but was opposed by a PTI MNA, which is where that attempt ended. As such, every party in the country is guilty of having used sedition as a weapon to silence its political rivals. The constitution gives every person the right to association, speech and expression. Taking this right away through laws such as the now-invalidated sedition clause only shows what each government in power has thought of the constitution. We saw this in recent years during the PTI government and now under the coalition government which has used the sedition charge with as much abandon as it was used against its own members when they were out of power. Year after year, this vicious cycle has continued – a game of musical chairs of oppressor and oppressed with sedition playing its merry tune to the benefit of one or the other. For the sake of the people of this country, particularly its large young population, we need a way to extend all facets of democracy and progressive politics. That is the only way we will be able to move forward with a sense of hope in these troubled times. And there is no hope to be achieved from slapping labels of sedition or worse on political leaders, journalists, or activists – no matter how much you disagree with them. The Lahore High Court’s order then must be welcomed across the board, without any ifs or buts regarding such progressive jurisprudence.