Trouble in the making?

April 18, 2021

A proposed bill criminalising “criticism” and “ridicule” of the Armed Forces has raised fears that it would further shrink the space for free speech and expression

“No one can ridicule the national ‘institutions’ any longer” Amjad Ali Khan, a member of National Assembly from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) wrote on his Twitter timeline on September 15, after tabling a private bill in the National Assembly suggesting a prison sentence and fine for those who “ridicule” the armed forces of Pakistan.

The purpose of the “The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2020” is “to prevent hatred and disrespectful behaviour against the Armed Forces. Strict action should be taken against those bringing disrepute to the Armed Forces institution in accordance with the law”.

It continues: “Whosoever intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the Armed Forces of Pakistan or a member thereof shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees, or with both.” The bill suggests amendments in the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

The National Assembly’s Standing Committee for Interior, recently approved the draft of the bill that neither defines what qualifies as “ridiculing” the Armed Forces nor what constitutes bringing “disrepute” and “defame” to them. Half of the members of the committee opposed the bill but the PTI MNA heading the committee cast the decisive vote to get the bill passed the committee. The committee was reportedly told by the Interior Ministry that “the incidents of defaming the Armed Forces have increased in the country. Some disruptive element[s], for furtherance of their political objectives, engage in this undesirable practice which is very defamatory and demoralising for the Armed Forces of Pakistan. The minister for interior has endorsed the proposed legislation keeping in view the current situation in the country.”

The mover of the bill, has been twice elected from Mianwali. He chairs the National Assembly Standing Committee for Defence. He is a son of the late Dr Sher Afgan Niazi. He joined the PTI in 2013 after his father’s death in 2012. His father had served as federal minister for parliamentary affairs in the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) regime during the presidency of Gen Pervez Musharraf. Dr Niazi, on retiring from politics, had nominated Amjad Ali Khan, his son, as his successor.

The bill was introduced mid-September when Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa, who had recently then, was appointed head of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority and came under severe criticism over his alleged failure to declare his assets while serving as a special assistant to prime minister - a public office. Bajwa was in hot waters for allegedly owning assets within the country and abroad that were disproportionate to his declared income. He stepped down as advisor to the PM following the allegations but continues to serve as chairperson of the CPEC Authority.

“Individuals might mistakes but we cannot blame entire institutions for those,” Amjad Ali Khan tells The News on Sunday (TNS). He denies that the introduction of the bill is related to the Bajwa episode.

Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, the federal minister, reacting to the approval of the bill by a NA committee said, “It is an absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalise criticism.

“Nobody can stop criticism in a democracy but there is a difference between criticism and hate speech; criticism and abuse” he says. He adds, “Those criticising the bill must read it carefully.

“It doesn’t say that anybody is above criticism. It says that ridiculing the state and its institutions will be treated as a crime.”

Khan says there is frequently a thin line between criticism and ridicule. He says that “loyalty to the state is the primary responsibility of a citizen”, and “obedience” to constitution and law is an obligation of every citizen.

“Eight months have gone by. Progress on the bill has been very slow. This shows there is no ‘push’ behind it. It is the voice of my heart. Freedom of expression cannot be denied but abuse cannot be allowed either,” he says.

The bill has attracted serious criticism within and outside the PTI. Many understandably fear that it will lead to a further shrinking of the space for freedom of expression, limit political satire and political criticism. Article 19 of the Constitution clearly defines the freedom of speech and protects it as a fundamental right of citizens. The country is already facing criticism for curtailing the free speech and expression through vague definitions of “national interest”, “obscenity” and “blasphemy” etc. The country already has defamation laws and the courts can tackle contempt of court. The parliamentarians have the right to move privilege proceedings if their dignity is attacked.

Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, a federal minister, reacting to the approval of the bill by the NA committee said, “It is an absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalise criticism. Respect is earned; it cannot be imposed on people. I strongly feel that instead of making laws like this, the contempt of court laws should be repealed.” Barrister Ali Zafar, a PTI senator, has said that the PTI would be unable to support the bill that seeks to penalise the criticism of Armed Forces. He says there is no need for such a bill as no state institution should be above constructive criticism.

“The bill moved by the hybrid regime will criminalise legitimate and necessary questions about army’s interference in civilian matters. No one is beyond the ambit of criticism. This included our generals. It is no secret that some military officials have been interfering in civil matters. Reject the Bill,” says Farhatullah Babar, a senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

“You are free to criticise democracy; you are free to criticise the parliament; you are free to criticise politicians; you are free to criticise the media – the rest is national interest,” says journalist Mazhar Abbas.

The Pakistan Bar Council has also reacted strongly to the move aiming to challenge it if it becomes a law.

“The bill criminalising criticism of the Armed Forces is a violation of Article 19 of the Constitution. Every patriotic citizen respects all national institutions including the Armed Forces. Each and every Pakistani also expects these institutions to serve the nation and remain [within] their domains as enshrined in the Constitution,” the PBC statement reads.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Trouble in the making?