An eroding freedom

A look at laws invoked to suppress dissent and restrict expression

An eroding freedom


ertain laws have been used regularly to silence or obscure dissent whether it be from the public or the media. The so-called blasphemy laws — Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, have often been abused to counter political opposition. Through Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, the Sedition Act criminalises speech or writing that “brings contempt or disaffection” against the state or government. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, criminalises online speech deemed “terroristic,“ “extremist,“ or “blasphemous.“

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002, enables the media watchdog to regulate and censor electronic media.

The Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002, requires media outlets to register with the government and imposes restrictions on content.

The Official Secrets Act, 1923, criminalises the disclosure of classified information and has been used occasionally to supress opposition.

The Defamation Act, 1992, allows for criminal charges to be brought against individuals accused of defaming others, including government officials. The law has been revised in the Punjab recently.

The Contempt of Court Ordinance, 2003, deals with unfair criticism of the Judiciary.

The Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, criminalises speech or actions deemed “terroristic” or supportive of terrorism.

Media persons are not the only citizens affected by these laws. Internet service providers, too, have been targeted to control dissenting voices. The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules, 2020, fail to provide adequate protection for online freedom of expression. Instead, these have been used as a form of censorship. Private social media companies and service providers are compelled using these to remove content that violates local laws. This provision is in direct opposition to the limited liability that service providers are granted in the PECA, Section 38. Internet service providers and social media companies are required to remove illicit content within 6 to 24 hours of receiving instructions from the PTA. However, the regulations do not specify the tests that the PTA officials will employ to determine whether or not a particular piece of content must be removed or prohibited.

Concerns have been raised regarding the potential for the government to exert influence over the regulator in order to suppress online criticism and dissent. The PTA has retained suo motu powers to investigate purportedly illicit online content. In addition, the regulations are expected to generate concerns regarding data privacy by mandating that companies furnish decrypted data to law enforcement. This might impede the growth of digital economy by imposing localisation requirements that may compel international companies to cease operations in the country. The absence of legislative guidance regarding restrictions on expression has largely left matters of free speech at the discretion of media regulators in the context of online content regulation.

In the past, regulators have received some guidance on the application of speech restrictions and the exercise of free expression through the judicial interpretation of fundamental rights. For instance, a 2016 Supreme Court order urged the authorities to evaluate the nature of the rights being violated and the proportionality of the enforcement action, among other factors, when determining restrictions on expression.

These laws have been regularly used to silence journalists, activists and other dissenting voices in Pakistan. Other tactics such as intimidation and harassment have also been used to control the narrative and suppress free speech. Journalists perceived to have provoked public sentiment against national institutions have been subject to disappearance and other forms of abuse.

The discretionary power of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to impose sanctions for broadly defined disinformation and misinformation was expanded in August 2023. Media groups warned that the law lacked adequate safeguards against suppression of legitimate reporting.

There are no effective safeguards against discriminatory legislation.

Blasphemy allegations frequently escalate to criminal prosecution and mob violence. In August 2023, mobs destroyed 24 churches and dozens of homes in Jaranwala after allegations that blasphemous content had been discovered on torn pages of the Holy Quran in close proximity to a Christian community.

In practice, the public is permitted to engage in discussions regarding a wide range of subjects; however, laws such as the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act grant the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority unrestricted authority to censor online content. Other regulators, like the PEMRA, and law enforcement authorities are concurrently using any and all laws that allow for a restriction, either directly or indirectly, to catch and restrain political, religious and rebelling behaviours. The broad and inadequately defined mandate of these laws encompasses the prevention of any maligning of the state, judiciary or armed forces, as well as the prevention of morally objectionable content.

The writer is an advocate of the high court, a founding partner at LexMercatoria and a visiting teacher at Bahria University’s Law Department. She can be reached at

An eroding freedom