Why Does The State Panic Over Free Speech?

Why Does The State Panic Over Free Speech?
All Pakistani citizens are given the right to freedom of speech and expression, while there are some limitations, such as those related to the dignity of religion, rule of law, and national security. Many groups of individuals, including minorities, media, and human rights advocates, have been victimised by these limitations.

The persecuted Ahmadi community in Pakistan continues to be the target of blasphemy trials, keeping them in constant. At least 10 Ahmadi houses of worship have been vandalised this year. The reports of forced conversion of young Christian and Hindu girls are common. A parliamentary committee rejected the coerced conversion bill that the Ministry of Human Rights had proposed in October last year.

Given the situation, a thorough understanding of freedom of press must be redrafted and disseminated to the general public to prevent people from interpreting it as a license to disregard other people's beliefs, views, and ideas.

Independent national and international observers have observed a gradual decline in peoples' opportunity to exercise their constitutional right of free speech and access to knowledge over the past few months as well as a gradual narrowing of the nation's space for civil and political discourse. Interestingly, a portion of this negative trend was linked to restrictions on information imposed by the state. Even though internet has given public access to platforms to express their opinions, rising polarisation in the community and the recent political instability has curbed this freedom.

Since 2018, Pakistan’s press and online regulatory institutions have maintained unreasonable legislative and regulatory limitations on speech and online content. The lack of laws on journalists' safety has exposed them to physical, legal, and digital threats. They frequently experience online harassment for their critical and free expression.

Criminal legislation, organized efforts to harass and manipulate users, proliferating misinformation, and the random blocking and deletion of not just material but also whole social media applications have threatened people’s digital speech. The accusations against journalists were reported to the authorities in Sindh and Balochistan allegedly for promoting anti-national views.
Article 19 of the Pakistan constitution guarantees citizens the freedom of speech. The constitutional clause imposes a duty on the State to make sure that everyone can legitimately practice this right.

Article 19 of the Pakistan constitution guarantees citizens the freedom of speech. The constitutional clause imposes a duty on the State to make sure that everyone can legitimately practice this right. However, Pakistan has a dismal track record when it comes to preserving its citizens' right to free speech. Public expression and press freedom in Pakistan have historically been severely restricted during protracted dictatorships. These restrictions on news and thought took on a regulatory function during democratic regimes. Criminal laws prevent people, particularly journalists and human rights advocates, from expressing their thoughts openly because they are afraid of being persecuted. The accessibility of the internet has provided people a chance to express their opinions, but more frequently, the state has begun to exercise control on internet. News networks are suspended for political reasons. The media industry's financial strains have resulted in layoffs and employment severance for media workers.

The history also reveals the oppressive laws against journalism that was in place during General Ziaul Haq's military dictatorship, as well as the three-staged resistance that the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation provided in opposition to them. Numerous working journalists participated in this rebel force by offering to be arrested voluntarily and suffering in jail. However, the bold reporters had to submit to the regime.

The military, which is Pakistan's most important institution, frequently rejects accusations that it meddles in politics or the media. But according to a journalistic rights group, the Pakistan military has used force, brutality, and even terror to force journalists to practice self-censorship. It has been using both direct and indirect means of censoring free speech. The risk of criticising the Pakistani military has increased, and a strengthened ‘cyber-crimes’ statute targets journalists for trivial violations. The criticism of the nation's strong security and political organisations has resulted in several journalists becoming the focus of violent attacks, while others have been interrogated, abducted, intimidated, driven off-air, or lost their jobs. The media has often been a target of militant organisations.

It is crucial that the state institutions effectively collaborate with the media persons to introduce new legislation to guarantee protection to journalists.