Restricted freedom and shackled speech

Updated Apr 13, 2017 06:22pm


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An anti-blasphemy protest in Lahore in 2012 | M Arif, White Star
An anti-blasphemy protest in Lahore in 2012 | M Arif, White Star

There has been unprecedented governmental activity since January this year over social media ‘abuse’. More recently, a member of the higher judiciary took it upon himself to remind the state institutions to fulfil their duty to protect Islam, and its holy personage from ‘abusers’. He was hearing a petition for registration of a blasphemy case against social media activists. It is not clear under what law of the land the petition was being entertained by the honourable judge. But it would be naive to bring up the question of legality of any proceeding when the issue is that of protecting religion.

In the latest twist of events, the honourable judge has directed the ministry of interior to identify and take action against those non-governmental organisations “operating in Pakistan with an agenda to spread blasphemy and pornography”.

Any reference here to any proceedings against the said judge at the Supreme Judicial Council could also be problematic and enough for one to land in trouble. Journalists running TV talk show Zara Hut Kay are not going to forget the temporary closure of their show and are more likely to mind their tongues in the future. But then isn’t this precisely the aim of the blasphemy brigade – now active nationwide – to silence dissent?

In 2015, Baloch activist Mama Qadeer was made to learn the same lesson when he was banned from going abroad. Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum’s member Saeed Baloch was probably a bigger threat to the state, so he had to spend 90 days in preventive detention after being kept incommunicado for 10 days. They were spared the agony of being accused of blasphemy. They can stay in Pakistan if they remain silent on issues they were vocal about in the past.

Earlier in January this year, some men, including a university teacher, were whisked away by ‘unknown’ abductors for allegedly committing criminal activities on social media. The aforementioned petition was, indeed, lodged for registration of blasphemy cases against them. They were kept in detention for weeks, then released ostensibly on the condition of not speaking to the world of the treatment they received. Anyone who had ever written anything critical of certain state institutions or on blasphemy laws wondered if the time had come to delete their views from cyberspace. They were ready to surrender their freedom of speech and exercise the right to be forgotten in order to be able to live without the fear of being stigmatised or prosecuted for what they said in the past.

The government was cognisant of the honourable judge’s daily elicits, though it was initially slow to respond. We heard him suggest that perhaps Facebook could be shut down if the abuse didn’t stop. Some people somewhere in the government departments were not too sure of that as the last time YouTube was shut down, merely because of fear of the court and without an express order, it took about four years to restore it.

Thus, an advertisement was run across the media reminding citizens that while they had the freedom of speech as a constitutional guarantee, it was subject to restrictions, reasonable so to say imposed, “in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan”, etc. The advertisement refers to offences of sedition, of outraging religious feelings and above all the much-feared blasphemy.

When Article 19 of the 1973 Constitution was framed with these qualifications, some members of parliament may have considered it to be a compromise. Some observers may have thought that these restrictions with the passage of time would become irrelevant and would not be invoked. These things happen in the legal and constitutional development of countries. For instance, in some countries blasphemy laws remain on the statute books but are dormant. In the United Kingdom, the law over blasphemy was abolished only in 2008 after it remained in disuse for many decades. In democratic societies, the offence of sedition is used rarely.

In Pakistan, we are witnessing a different kind of trend. Here, blasphemy is a tool to achieve personal as well as higher ‘national security’ goals. Elsewhere in the world, it is being argued that restrictions on constitutional guarantees should be used to promote democratic values. In Pakistan, we are not even bothered to bring on record the arrest and detention of the people the state deems its enemies? But the government must keep reminding citizens of the restrictions placed on their constitutional freedoms.

Arnold J Toynbee was right. Civilisations die by suicide not by murder.

This article was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore.