by Baseer Naveed

Clip_47Freedom of expression is today at its lowest in the history of the country.

The people of the country have, in fact, never enjoyed freedom of expression. However, during the last decade or so the governments have claimed that they have given freedom of expression to the media.

A point of confusion is how the people compare the freedom of expression with the freedom of the media houses. The two are completely difference and far distant from each other.

In fact, much of the self-censorship comes from the media houses themselves as they do not wish to draw the ire of the government, judiciary, the armed forces and more so, that of the Muslim fundamentalists. Sadly the voices that really need to be heard, those of the peasant farmers and labourers in the industrial areas are ignored and therefore silenced by the media whose sole purpose is to gain advertising revenue. It is no longer a secret that the media houses are ‘driven’ by the armed forces through their Inter Services Public Relations office.

The judiciary, which has always been a poodle of the armed forces, neither of which has never really served the nation in its history, have both been given the status of a sacred cow.

One point of proof that freedom of expression is absent in the country is the fact that the media houses seldom allow any real criticism of the military, Muslim militants or religious extremists.

One example is as to how the state institutions and media houses have curbed free speech.

The restriction on the freedom of expression may be dated back to the very creation of the country.

Pakistan was created on the 14th August 1947 and the father of the nation gave his inaugural speech three days earlier on the 11th August. It is interesting to note that the speech of the Governor General-to-be, Mr. Jinnah, was itself censored. The interesting point was that only those portions were censored which were purely secular in their nature where Mr. Jinnah said that “you are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State”. He further said “now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”.

Two years after the creation of Pakistan the so-called legislators passed a resolution entitled the ‘Objective Resolution of Pakistan’. In this resolution it was declared that sovereignty lay with Allah. This later became part of the constitution and denied the people the right to democracy, thereby creating the guidelines on the restrictions for the freedom of expression and the freedom to practice the religion of your choice. The country was declared a theocratic society where only Islam can prevail and no one else had any rights, the citizens were divided into Muslims and non Muslims. A clear demarcation was made between the majority and the minority, so all rights were recognized for Muslims and those who were not Muslim had no rights. The concept of equality for various sections of the society was supposed to be determined on this basis.

Again through the 1973 constitution, which was the first time anything was passed unanimously, the state took the responsibility to decide who is Muslim and who is not by making the fourth amendment in the constitution where the Ahmadis were declared as non-Muslim. Through this amendment state has the power to declare who is Muslim, strengthened the pressure groups, the Muslim fundamentalists, to take the responsibility of declaring Muslims and non Muslims.

The objective resolution was made part of the pre-amble of the constitution. But during the military regime of General Zia ul Haq the Objective Resolution was made as the part of the constitution. Those rights of minorities which were given in the original Objective Resolution were also deleted. General Zia has made three famous laws, the Blasphemy laws by inserting clause B and C, Qisas and Diyat, through which the evidence from women denied and the Had ordinance. So the rights of women and religious minority groups were denied.

This has resulted in self censorship of the media as the rules and regulations concerning the blasphemy laws are not being adhered to. These are that the arresting and investigating officer must be of the rank of Superintendent of Police. However, people are being arrested by the mob and if they are lucky, handed over alive to any police officer who happens to be present.

The media is extremely careful about what they say regarding the religious extremists as they can expect no protection or support from the authorities or judiciary. This was evident in the cases of the assassinations of the governor of Punjab, Taseer and the Federal Minister on Religious Minorities, Mr. Bhatti where the perpetrators of the violence have either gone unpunished or are being treated as heroes. The lawyers themselves, who are supposed to be protectors of the law, came out in support of the assassins, blaming the victims as blasphemers.

Although the blasphemy law is not the subject of this particular article I mention it because it has a direct affect on the freedom of expression in that, while the constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of religion the actual situation in the country is very much different and any media person or company speaking out in support of the minorities soon faces attacks ranging from hate speeches to physical violence and even death.

The Blasphemy law in any way has been made a killer. If any person is accused of Blasphemy particularly on the charges of defiling the name of last prophet (PBUH) he or she has to face the death penalty from the law or state and if not then fundamentalist will murder him/she. In a case of two Christians who were sentenced on section 295 B they were released by high court Mr. Justice Arif Bhatti, as they were scavengers and cannot read any word. After their release they left Pakistan but the Justice was murdered for releasing the blasphemers.

One judge of Session court has to leave the country when he gave the death sentenced to the killer of former Governor of Punjab. He was announced by the fundamentalists as liable to be killed because he has given punishment to the hero of Islam. The Governor of Punjab was murdered because he used his right of freedom of expression in support of one, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced on the charges of blasphemy.

In fact, freedom of expression is limited by the same constitution. In the constitution Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim. This is in effect a contradiction as the constitution on the one hand declares the freedom to practice the religion of your choice but on the other places the Ahmadis in a position that leaves them open to attack by the fundamentalists. Any media house coming out in their support or criticising the fundamentalists are liable to the same degree of violence as the Ahmadis themselves.

The media is also suppressed by the military when they attempt to report on the nexus between the armed forces and the militant jihadists. One report noted that during 2006 about ten journalists were kidnapped by security forces apparently belonging to military secret services, while performing their professional duties. The report also revealed that the very few journalists based in the tribal areas in Baluchistan are caught in the crossfire between security forces, jihadist militants and tribal chiefs fighting each other to control the area.

Another area which is strictly forbidden to journalists is reporting on the corruption of the politicians, the military and the judiciary. These institutions have become sacred cows, untouchable by anyone other than their own hierarchy. Any journalists brave enough to highlight this corruption is liable to face the same fate as those mentioned earlier.

Often the freedom of expression is restricted in the names of vulgarity, morality and obscenity; three items that have never been clearly defined in the law or by any court. However, this does not deter the authorities, those with vested interests and the media houses that are quick to make use of these accusations to enforce self censorship.

In an attempt to define these issues the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority called for a consultative conference to discuss them. However, no one turned up so they have arranged another conference for later this month. It is hoped that by mutual consent they will be able to put forward proposals to the apex court of the land.

Through the constitution and laws there are many restrictions on the freedom of expression and freedom of media. The “Official Secret Act of 1923” is still operative. Anything which state thinks is prejudicial to the interest of the state or against the state should be tried under this act. Those matters which are made as classified cannot be published or even be spoken of.

Safety act and Telegraph act are also used for curbing the right of freedom of expression. No material can be published or spoken of which is against the interest of the state.

The Newspapers Periodical and News agencies Ordinance 2002 is still in force through which until and unless it gives the declaration for publication, no periodical or newspaper can be printed. This is a clear cut violation of Article 19 of the ICCPR, constitution of Pakistan.

PEMRA is a regulatory body which gives out licenses for the production of any type of electronic channel. Permission has to be taken from government. It is not like Europe or USA that any person or organization can make their own channel—the FM radio and TV.

After 1985, which was the period of military rule, the pressure groups and fundamentalists have taken the role of state and tactics of coercion and intimidation for implementation of their own rules. The role of the government or state has been reduced to the minimum.

The contempt of court is also another method of restricting the freedom of expression. The government says there is no law against the contempt of court but the Supreme Court relies on the contempt of court ordinance of 2004 to use it as minimizing the freedom of expression particularly on the decisions of the court.

There is a draft for legislation on access to information before the government and the media houses but it can be termed as just lip service to try and show that something is being done. It does not define who will decide what is secret and what is not. Contrary to global practices, the government has kept everything secret until it is declared to be made public. The data collection and maintenance mechanisms are very poor in our country.

The draft freedom of information law allows the government and its agencies to classify anything they want to be exempt from being made public, without explanation as to why they are doing so. The procedure to declare something secret has not been revealed. And the big question is who exactly is authorised to declare anything secret?

The constitution declares quite clearly that Pakistan is an Islamic country. Therefore, quite simply there is no freedom of expression as the country is run purely on a religious basis.