A stand for freedom of expression

April 9, 2023

Lahore High Court has declared the sedition law as ultra vires of the constitution and struck down Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code

A stand for freedom of expression


he Constitution of Pakistan is the highest law of the land.It guarantees certain fundamental rights for all citizens, including the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 of the constitution stipulates that “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security, or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.”

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) criminalises sedition, which refers to the act of “bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt, or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in Pakistan.” The law has been used frequently by the authorities to stifle dissent and silence critics.

Recourse to sedition laws to restrict free speech is not an occurrence exclusive to Pakistan. Many countries worldwide have similar laws, enforced frequently to silence the opposition and suppress political dissent. The interpretation and enforcement of these laws differ significantly from one country to another, and they are often challenged legally and subjected to public scrutiny.

One of the primary concerns with the implementation of sedition laws is the ambiguous and excessively broad language employed in the statute. The definition of sedition is often formulated in expansive terms, making it difficult to determine what actions qualify as seditious. This lack of clarity can result in the abuse and misuse of the law, as it can be interpreted to encompass a vast array of activities that may not necessarily aim to incite hatred or disaffection towards the government.

The enforcement of sedition laws can adversely affect exercise of human rights and enjoyment of civil liberties. When individuals fear voicing their opinions against the government or its policies, they may be more susceptible to accepting abuses of power and violations of their rights. This can result in the erosion of the rule of law and a culture of impunity for those in positions of authority.

Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, is unconstitutional and ultra vires of the constitution as it blatantly contravenes Article 8, 9, 14, 16, 17, 19 and 19-A. Since 1947, the sedition law (Section 124-A of the PPC) has been recklessly employed as a tool to exploit and restrict the right to free speech and expression, which is guaranteed under Article 19 of the constitution.

The sedition law, inherited from the subcontinent’s colonial rulers, is identical in both India and Pakistan. This provision was extensively used to suppress political dissent during India’s anti-colonial struggle. In May 2022, a three-judge bench led by a former chief justice of India in SGVombatkerevs Union of India directed the Centre and the States to suspend all pending trials, appeals and proceedings related to charges framed under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which pertains to the offenxe of sedition. This was to be done until the central government completes the promised exercise of reconsidering and re-examining the provision.

The recent ruling striking down Pakistan’s colonial-era sedition law is expected to have significant implications.

In 2019, a group of students from a university in the Punjab was charged under Section 124-A for organising a protest against the increasing cost of education. In 2018, a former senator faced charges under Section 124-A for delivering a speech in which he advocated for the independence of the Balochistan province. In 2020, a journalist was charged under the same section for reporting on the alleged corruption of a government official. These cases represent only a few of the numerous instances where this law has been exploited to suppress valid criticism of the government.

Lahore High Court declared the sedition law ultra vires of the constitution and struck down Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, stating that it is unconstitutional and violates the fundamental rights of citizens. The court held that the Sedition Law is a relic of the colonial era and has no place in a modern democratic society. It further stated that the law is vague and open to abuse and has been used to suppress the right to freedom of speech and expression. Additionally, the court noted that the Sedition Law is inconsistent with other provisions of the constitution, such as the right to equality and protection of the law.

Recently Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leader Shahbaz Gillwas prosecuted under sedition charges. Other lawmakers, including MNAs MohsinDawar and AliWazir, are also facing prosecution on similar charges. JournalistsArshad Sharif, KhawarGhumman, Adeel Raja, and Sadaf Abdul Jabbar have also faced prosecution on sedition charges. MakhdoomJaved Hashmi, a former federal minister, was sentenced to 23 years in prison on sedition charges earlier.

The sedition law had long been under criticism for its incompatibility with modern democratic values. Many countries, such as the United Kingdom and India, have repealed or significantly restricted their sedition laws due to their incompatibility with democratic principles. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has also called for the abolition of sedition laws, citing their restriction of freedom of expression and incompatibility with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Additionally, the law has been criticised for its inconsistency with other provisions of the constitution. Article 4 guarantees the right to the protection of the law, while Article 25 guarantees equal rights to all citizens regardless of religion, race, caste or sex. The sedition law discriminates against those who express dissentand subjects them to unfair treatment by law enforcement.

The ruling striking down Pakistan’s sedition law is expected to have significant implications for other laws that have been used to stifle opposition in the country. This decision sends a clear message that the government cannot use law to silence dissent or suppress critical voices. The effectiveness of the ruling will depend on its implementation and whether other laws are used to fill the void left by the sedition law. It is worth noting that the ruling could face opposition from those who benefit from the law’s existence. Nevertheless, the court’s decision to invalidate the sedition law is a step towards strengthening democracy and protecting human rights in Pakistan.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court and a PhD scholar

A stand for freedom of expression