Monday June 17, 2024

Who’s afraid of free speech?

When out of power, the PML-N campaigned for free media

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
May 27, 2024
The picture shows people holding placards during a protest for media freedom. — AFP/File
The picture shows people holding placards during a protest for media freedom. — AFP/File

When they are not in power, they want no restrictions on media. But when they take charge, they make efforts to muzzle electronic, print and social media. That is the PML-N for you once again – a supposedly democratic party that has one brother as the party president and another as the country’s prime minister.

So far, the PML-N has used the position of deputy prime minister to accommodate a close relative and selected its president’s daughter to lead the largest province of the country, and it now wants to strangulate dissent under the garb of a crackdown on ‘defamation’. When out of power, the PML-N campaigned for free media. While in power, it has ignored media professionals and human rights activists demanding free media. Not that the PTI performed any better on this front, but the record of the PML-N is as bad as its adversaries.

These are questions to do with ethics and values in a society full of people with diverse views. A society needs to tackle the difference between particulars and universals skilfully. The Punjab Defamation Bill 2024 is perhaps the worst example of how the PML-N leadership is unable to comprehend the basic principle of running a society – that a government cannot unilaterally define ‘ethics’ and ‘values’; in a diverse society, different opinions need protection, and that includes something which one party may consider defamatory. The more you get offended in the name of defamation, the more vulnerable you appear.

The way the PML-N government in Punjab has tried to shun all dissent smacks of an extremely vulnerable dispensation that is tightening the noose around the media. The PTI government was notorious for bulldozing laws through presidential ordinances, and now the PML-N is driving an entire provincial assembly to enact laws that will ultimately haunt its own members.

When a party’s pre-election conduct signals any arrangement with the powers that be, the said party ends up defaming the people of Pakistan. Any party whose ascent to power is laced with dubious credentials should ideally not impose a law that has universal implications. Civil society and digital rights activists have long been warning against any such law that has universal ramifications against journalists and media persons.

Such draconian laws have been a staple of governments that come to power through either military coups or support from the powers that be. By enacting such laws, a government deprives its people of any certainty they may have about their future in this country. Now nobody knows how and when the custodians of this law will take action against them on any minor pretext.

This law will lead to wide-ranging speculation that will become the hallmark of the PML-N government and its authoritarian attitudes. When authorities decide to introduce a law that tries to impose the silence of the graveyard on society, all citizens must resist. A good government tries to inspire its people, not subjugate them into silence under the guise of defamation.

Critical and independent voices provide a bloodline to society and teach young people some essential life skills including the art of questioning everything under the sun. By criminalizing dissent through defamation laws, the PML-N government has exposed itself as a party least concerned about free speech.

This law is much more dangerous than any other law in recent history, including the laws that the PTI tried to impose. Freedom of expression encourages us to dig deep for underplaying facts that may be hidden from the eyes of the people. This defamation law tries to deprive people of their right to dig deep and forces them to be superficial and remain more interested in the surface than what lies underneath. The purpose of the right to free expression is precisely to remove that superficiality hiding the facts.

It is true that we live in a world saturated with confusion and disinformation, so if we can cast a new light on any of the big ruses paddled in society that will only be possible through freedom of expression, and not by curbing it. It is clear that the new law will not benefit ordinary people and will only protect the constitutional officeholders who will get blanket protection for their deeds – or rather misdeeds. If a government values ignorance, it may enact such laws to close people’s minds.

Most people work from a set of innate and universal moral foundations. That foundation keeps a society running. No ruling party can (and should) impose a foundation that it considers best for society without consulting essential stakeholders who, in this case, involve civil society, digital media creators and users, human rights activists, journalists, and society at large.

The Punjab government has disregarded all sane suggestions and has acted in an arbitrary manner that is so destructive for democracy and free speech in the country. It appears to be a battle between monism and pluralism. The PML-N has followed a monist path while the people of Pakistan deserve and need a pluralistic approach to media freedom.

All public officials must know and realize that they are accountable to the people of Pakistan who have the right to express their opinions using all media, if public officials do not like it, so be it. We have seen how the law ensuring the right to information has received constant resistance from public officials who are not willing to release information that is no state secret.

It takes months or even years before an applicant can get hold of the information requested. The right to information protects citizens, but now the sole purpose of this new defamation law appears to be the protection of public officials.

The garb of ‘fake news’ and ‘propaganda’ combines systematic criticism of social injustice with optimizing benefits for public officeholders. The ‘special tribunals’ that will be set up will initiate cases against anyone whom the complainant thinks has aired or drafted ‘fake news’. This goes against the grain of a multi-layered and pluralistic approach to values in a society that must have a constitutional guarantee of an independent judiciary. No government should have the right to establish any such tribunal and appoint members even if it is in consultation with the provincial chief justice.

If the chief justice of the Lahore High Court nominates three names from the judiciary and the government appoints one of these three, this will be like compromising on the legal fraternity. The chief justice will do the same when the government sends its three preferred names from the legal fraternity for the tribunal. This mutual scratching of backs is bad and unsavoury for both the government in power and the incumbent chief justice. It will also compromise the independence of the judiciary. In the 21st century, there should be no room for such manipulation against the citizens of Pakistan and their right to free expression.

The people need to select their own path to decide right from wrong. This requires exposure to a fair amount of observing and reading, and watching a variety of content, some of it may consist of not entirely accurate account of events and ideas.

A government has to trust its people and repose confidence in them so that they can make their decisions and form opinions. People have a right to record ideas springing up in their minds and sort them out during and after their interaction with different opinions available.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: