Ms Abrish Nayyar is a student of BS Mass Communications at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST). Her subjects of interest are the history of the subcontinent, sociology, and mass media.
Legislature on Freedom of Expression in Pakistan
With the recently imposed ban on one of the biggest news channels, many individuals may question what the constitution of Pakistan has to say about freedom of expression and censorship. This ban was effectively put into place by the Ministry of Interior in the second week of August, as the security clearance issued to the channel was rescinded. Stakeholders claim that the channel is being victimized by the federal government for no valid reason. So, what does our law say about censorship and freedom of expression?
The Constitution of 1973 clearly and explicitly provides the citizens of Pakistan with the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 states, “Every citizen has the right to freedom of expression and the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam, the integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan or any part of it, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, committing or inciting an offense.”
In fact, Pakistan happens to be one of the very few countries that formally recognize the right to information as a constitutional right. This right ensures the authorization to have an opinion and to freely express it. In essence, it is a significant component of a democratic state and freedom in general. The Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (RBUOC) guidelines are a result of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which was passed in 2016.
They empower Pakistan’s internet regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), to block information that offends “Islam’s glory,” “Pakistan’s integrity, security, and defense,” “public order,” or “decency and morals.” These regulations allow the government to ban online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube if they refuse to comply with takedown requests. It mandates that all platforms, including messaging apps like WhatsApp, share users’ decrypted data with authorities without judicial oversight and gives the PTA broad powers to levy fines.
On the internet, censorship in Pakistan mostly just targets blasphemous content or media that is considered a potential threat to national security. For instance, the YouTube ban that lasted several years was mainly triggered by a general rise in Islamophobic and sacrilegious content.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an aspirational norm shared by all nations, but it has no legal authority. It applies to all individuals in all nations across the world, as its name implies. The Declaration of Human Rights has been integrated into many national constitutions and domestic legal systems, despite the fact that it is not legally enforceable.
The declaration has also served as a basis for the development of a slew of other legally enforceable human rights treaties, and it has established a clear baseline for universal human rights principles that must be advocated and maintained in all nations. Article 19 states that everyone has the right to free thinking and expression, which includes the freedom to hold beliefs without interference and the capacity to seek, receive and share information and ideas through any medium and across all frontiers.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a fundamental international human rights instrument that provides a wide range of civil and political rights safeguards. The covenant requires governments to adopt administrative, judicial, and legislative steps to preserve and provide an appropriate remedy for the rights entrenched in the treaty.
The United Nations General Assembly approved the covenant in 1966, and it went into effect in 1976. Article 19 of the ICCPR reiterates the statements of UDHR and further contributes that certain limitations may exist, as necessary, and imposed by law:
a) for the sake of others’ rights or reputations
b) in order to defend national security, public order (ordre public), public health, or morality.
Censorship in Pakistan
It is important to note that Pakistan’s history has been tumultuous – with short terms of democratic rulers, a significant contribution was made by military rule. Despite claims that a free press is the identity of a democratic regime, interestingly enough, the Pakistani media has always been subject to strict rules and regulations by the ruling party, no matter their political standing, or lack thereof. Media does not depend on democracy only, but democracy does depend on the media as well.
Generally, censorship is not encouraged anywhere across the globe. Freedom of expression has been granted the status of a fundamental human right and therefore, treated as such. Regardless, there have been instances everywhere that may be considered a breach of this right and an implementation of censorship. Of course, these are dependent on the priorities of the government, the moral values of the authorities (especially in the case of private parties), and the beliefs and sentiments of the majority.
Pakistan is no different in this regard. Most of the banned content in our country is either blasphemous, directly contradicts the moral and ethical boundaries set out by Islam, or threatens national security. The issue arises when the entire platform is blocked off, rather than just offensive content. In the West, such censorship exists only with regard to content that is potentially harmful to national security.
According to the Pakistan Press Foundation’s report on the condition of Pakistani media, seven journalists and one media organization owner faced legal action in 2018. Recently in Pakistan, journalists, activists, novelists, and politicians told The Guardian that the current environment of “severe fear and self-censorship,” as well as the suppression of opposing political voices, is worse than it was under General Zia’s harsh tenure from 1977 to 1988.
So, whether the state is democratic, authoritarian, or a hybrid regime, certain topics and subjects are not protected by the right to freedom of expression, as fundamental as it may be. Overall, in recent years, the focus has been on internet censorship. Social media usage, networking, and activism all continue to grow and therefore, continue to be a source of concern for governments.
All in all, censorship is an old practice that is continuing to this day in nearly all parts of the world. Despite claims otherwise, even the most successful or most literal democratic country has a long history of censorship. So, even with all rights to freedom of expression granted, censorship may still exist. Even the statements themselves include exceptions to the right, whether they are a part of the American or Pakistani constitution, or the UDHR or ICCPR.
Limits have and always will exist. The media happens to be gaining importance with each passing day, and it would be an irresponsible decision for the government if they were to let it run unregulated. However, this does not mean that governments should have free rein over the content. Rather, an objective body, or the judiciary, should be monitoring media content to protect the moral values of the society, the national interest, and the rights of the people within its authority.
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