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Freedom for national good

October 20, 2016

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SEVERAL international rights organisations have jointly issued a global civic charter for the defence of four basic freedoms — the rights to freedom of expression, information, assembly and association — and Pakistan is among the countries for which the campaign is especially relevant.

The civic charter has been strongly backed by Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. He says that the biggest difficulty in resolving the multiple crises faced by humankind is that billions of people — indeed the majority of the world — are prevented from contributing their talents, sharing their ideas and expressing their wishes.

Attempts to prevent citizens from contributing to the solution of national problems take many forms in Pakistan.


Pakistan is still caught in the post-9/11 wave that has undermined human rights worldwide.


Human rights activists are threatened, abused, intimidated and illegally confined in two Balochistan cities for mobilising citizens against extremism and violence, which is supposed to be the principal national concern.

The prime minister has thanked rights activists for facilitating legislation on ‘honour’ killings while security personnel have been hounding, harassing and intimidating women activists for voicing their concerns and preventing them from holding peaceful meetings.

And scores of Pakistani journalists, particularly in Balochistan and the Fata/ KP region, are facing serious threats to their rights to freedom of expression and information.

It is obvious that the right to freedom of expression is the most crucial of the four basic freedoms under attack because freedoms of information, assembly and association are means for citizens to record their concerns, voice their aspirations and offer solutions to national problems, including alternatives to official policies.

Although the right to freedom of expression belongs to all citizens including political parties, professional associations and NGOs, media persons have traditionally been identified as the principal party that should defend its and the people’s entitlements.

For Pakistan’s media community, defending the right to freedom of expression means protecting the fruits of nearly 200 years of struggle that began in the days of the East India Company when Raja Ram Mohan Roy closed down his newspaper instead of submitting to censorship. A large number of editions/ journalists followed him and suffered imprisonment, seizure of printing presses and forfeiture of security deposits for the sake of people’s freedom from alien rule. A couple of signposts on this journey are worth recalling.

The Quaid was chairman of the board of the Bombay Chronicle in 1919 when its editor, B.G. Horniman, was deported for supporting the Indian people’s cause. He was prevented from returning to India by being denied a passport. The matter was raised in the central assembly and the Quaid made a blistering attack on the governments of India and Britain for punishing Horniman through an arbitrary executive action. It was on this occasion that he declared that liberty of an individual was the dearest thing in any constitution and that could not be taken away by any executive authority.

Then there was the case of the reporter of The Times of London who offended the government of India by his somewhat truthful account of the suppression of the Quit India movement in 1942. The viceroy protested to secretary of state Amery in these words: we are facing a 1857-like crisis and hanging to power by the skin of our teeth. Kindly intervene with the editor.

Amery couldn’t meet The Times editor and the assistant editor who accepted his invitation to lunch declined to get the reporter gagged. In the end, Amery obliged the viceroy by sending a lightweight journalist, Beverley Nicholas, to keep the British national interest in mind. (Incidentally, Nicholas wrote a book, Verdict on India, which greatly pleased the Muslim League.) Even during an emergency, a British reporter was free to interpret the ‘national interest’ differently than the government of India.

The term ‘national interest’ was interpreted in Pakistan very broadly 50 to 60 years ago. The report of a patwari’s corruption could be suppressed in the ‘national interest’ and the same logic was applied to detain Sobho Gianchandani for holding communist ideas until Justice Lari of the Sindh High Court declared that this was no crime, and an article on Imam Husain’s resistance to Yezid could be censored in the 1980s.

Things have surely changed, but Pakistan is still caught in the post-9/11 wave that has undermined human rights and due process worldwide, even though the world is beginning to realise the havoc the wars waged in the name of ‘threats to security’ have caused over the last two decades.

The Pakistani journalists’ struggle to get the oppressive press laws — from Adam’s Regulation of 1867 and the Press Act of 1931, to the Press and Publication Ordinance of 1963 — rewritten so as to protect media persons against the executive’s punitive actions is recent history. The central issue all along has been the journalists’ right to be treated in accordance with normal laws if any offence has been committed.

Unfortunately, old-style legal steps to force media persons to fall in line have gone out of fashion. Incidents of covert arms-twisting, involuntary disappearance and even death after abduction have made Pakistan one of the most dangerous places for journalists. How to rid the country of this stigma and ensure that efforts in this direction, such as the Salim Shahzad commission report, are not suppressed should be at the top of the agenda for both the government and the media.

There will be a need to take care of some sticking points. First, neither the government nor the media can claim infallibility. Second, the official attitude of treating civil society, including the media, as pestilential will have to be discarded. Thirdly, the question of any restrictions on freedom of expression, through open censorship or otherwise, must be determined in accordance with the Johannesburg Principles, which oblige government to show not only that any restrictions are absolutely necessary but also that they do not violate fundamental due process obligations. It was this principle the US supreme court upheld while rejecting the Nixon administration’s bid to prevent The Washington Post from publishing the Watergate story.

Those who wish to ignore the cost paid by Pakistan for curbing freedom of expression — the state’s disintegration in 1971 — will be guilty of pushing the country towards a greater catastrophe.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2016