How good is Pakistan in the enforcement of freedom of expression and right to information?
How significant is freedom of expression (FOE)? Universally speaking, the right to free speech is only second to the right to life. And like most countries, this is guaranteed as a fundamental human right in the Pakistani constitution but not as the second most important right. Rather, it slides down at No 19 on a list of 24 basic rights assured to citizens.
However, the Pakistani constitution amazingly, in a good way, lists the right to information (RTI) as a separate right but twins it with FOE as Article 19A, essentially attaching it as an appendage to Article 19. An overwhelming number of countries of the world don’t guarantee RTI as a fundamental right like Pakistan does.
How good is Pakistan in the enforcement of FOE and RTI? In a single phrase: terrible, at best. Irrespective of whether military has ruled directly or there has been a democratic dispensation, or hybrid democracy (like in the 1990s) or hybrid martial law (like currently) in place, exercising FOE and enforcing RTI are tough rights to enjoy in Pakistan.
For one, consider: Article 19 essentially takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. It guarantees: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press…”, but adds ominously: “…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.”
This breathtaking duality of purpose is akin to cognitive dissonance. Being a watchdog of public interest, how can the media – and indeed citizens – not criticise the government, even if it is a direct military or hybrid dispensation? FOE becomes redundant if media and citizens cannot hold governments accountable. But the military in Pakistan equates criticism of its meddling in politics as a reproach to its defence-related professionalism rather than seeing it as a fair comment and opinion on exceeding of its assigned roles and responsibilities.
No wonder over the past few years the remit of military-public relations has expanded dramatically with its near continual reminders to the media and citizens to be wary of the so-called ‘enemy fifth generation warfare’. This is a euphemism for its imagined right to exemption from criticism lest the ‘unthinking’ public and media help enemies hurt its political and information dominance. While the military puts itself above criticism, it itself unthinkingly considers it within its right to exercise free speech in criticising the courts (in the Musharraf treason verdict) and the government (the ‘Rejected!’ tweet on Sharif government’s self-punishment on the so-called DawnLeaks issue).
Most newsrooms in Pakistan today are heavily influenced by the coercive dictates of certain state quarters and have successfully barred key political leaders – Nawaz, Shehbaz, Maryam, Bilawal, Zardari, Rehman, Asfandyar, Achakzai, Dawar, Wazir, Altaf, etc and others such as rights activists including Pashteen, Ammar, and many student leaders – from being interviewed for TV. They can be talked about but not be allowed to talk to the citizens.
Similarly, the courts equates criticism of their actions as censure of judges’professionalism when what the citizens and media are doing is holding it accountable for exceeding their mandate by validating severe violations of the constitution and unduly hanging, disqualifying and jailing elected leaders and parliamentarians in excess of any of their crimes real or imagined. The courts disqualified from the 2018 elections almost the entire team of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s political spokespersons such as Talal, Daniyal, Nihal, etc for alleged contempt of courts while also putting into the dock current office holders, Firdous and Sarwar.
Likewise, criticism of Islam is disallowed by the constitution in Article 19, instead of criticism of “religion” (it is another debate altogether whether religions should be above criticism), thereby discriminating among religions and technically making it possible to blaspheme against religions other than the one patronised by the state. This allows for radical narratives articulated by religious (almost solely Muslim) groups – of both the legal and illegal hues – who easily encroach upon the FOE space of the citizens and media, as well as of the minorities. Women and transgenders are also easy targets of hate speech. Hate speech is almost a legal substitute for free speech in Pakistan. That’s why students can turn in or murder teachers for alleged blasphemy (Punjab), whole communities can forcibly convert religious minority young girls to their favourite religion (Sindh) and jilted lovers can attack worship places of minorities (Hassan Abdal). But some minorities can’t even legally say assalam u alaikum to fellow citizens.
As for the media, over the course of the last two years in particular, the powers-that-be have all but decimated it by neutralising many of Pakistan’s best journalists who have been forced out of jobs with mostly only an army of defence analysts and non-professional journalists now masquerading as anchorpersons and commentators representing an emaciated journalism sector. Journalism has never been an easy profession to start with – over 120 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000 with the killer of only one (foreign) journalist convicted. There is total impunity to murdering journalists – assassination is the worst form of censorship in Pakistan.
In terms of RTI, even while Pakistan took the lead in South Asia to enact a legal framework and followed it up by guaranteeing it as a constitutional right, the federal government took years, more than Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Punjab and Sindh, to enact an RTI law to enforce this guarantee. And even after enactment it has continually frustrated properly functionalising information commissions to facilitate the governments becoming transparent and responsive to citizens’ information needs. While there have been small successes, the federal government and the provinces continue to be actively and aggressively opaque about information requests and proactive disclosure of information as mandated by the RTI laws.
Meanwhile, ministers defend their imagined right to inflict physical violence upon journalists citing ‘bad journalism’ based on rumour and innuendo, without understanding that in the absence of effective exercise of FOE and RTI by the citizens and elected representatives, media has to rely on unconfirmed information.
The last bastion of free space for discourse in Pakistan, which is discouraged elsewhere, including in the universities, and even the cracking down on fiction like the translation of Muhammed Hanif’s novel, is the social media. But it is now the new declared and contemptuous target of both the deep state and the government to silence all the remaining Pakistanis who don’t get the message on the largely manipulated mainstream media and the effectively muted and sidelined parliament. The FOE and RTI rights in Pakistan are on their proverbial deathbeds. Misinformation and disinformation in a post-fact regime reign supreme as state policy. You can almost hear the silence screaming in the factual information vacuum that is Pakistan.