Terms of debate

11 Jun 2018


FOR any society to prosper, debate, discussion, and critical reflection on the status quo is essential. This includes evaluation and criticism of all parts of government and the state, the functioning of its institutions, of private entities eg the media and corporations, as well as scrutiny of the official performance of individuals who occupy positions in the private and public entities.

Attempts to restrict debate, discussion, and critique is a disservice to the struggles of heroes in the past, as well as future citizens. In a democratic set-up, many avenues are available for debate, including educational institutes, especially universities; town halls with public officials; protest demonstrations; public hearings at parliament; etc. In our case, however, attempts continue to be made to restrict the exercise of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and fought for by citizens during the tenures of military dictatorships.

The Constitution guarantees fundamental rights of freedom of assembly under Article 16, freedom of association under Article 17, freedom of speech and expression under Article 19, and the right to information under Article 19-A. However, student unions remain banned at university campuses that were the nurseries of those wishing to enter politics, public events continue to be banned at universities due to state pressure, academic research is often restricted to only follow state-sanctioned narratives, and students continue to be arrested for exercising their fundamental rights to protest peacefully.

Criticism of state policies must not be discouraged.

However, the past decade saw the emergence of social media that provides a safe space for speech and expression, is a conduit for mobilisation, and a very important avenue for acquiring as well as disseminating information. Debates take place on social media, citizens have access to information regarding their rights, and a platform to uncover corruption and abuses by state functionaries. The state introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 in order to limit these powers, but the legitimate and peaceful use of social media for expression, information and association must remain protected. Threats of monitoring users on social media for anti-state activities are highly problematic in several ways.

First, the definition of what qualifies as “anti-state” or treason under Article 6 states that those who abrogate the Constitution or hold it in abeyance are guilty of treason. Hence, it is for a court of law to decide treasonous actions, such as in the case of former military dictator Parvez Musharraf. No other state functionary has the prerogative to make such subjective judgements, but if a serious case arises, evidence should be presented before a court of law so that due process rights under Article 10 and 10-A of the Constitution remain protected while the issue is resolved.

Second, debate on or criticism of state policies must not be discouraged as it is a fundamental right of citizens whose taxes the state functionaries use to fund their activities and whose votes legitimise the executive decision-making of government and state functionaries. Using citizens for taxes and votes but expecting them to be obedient to all decisions made by the state is behaviour that belongs in the dictatorial and colonial past, not in our democratic present.

Third, the label of foreign backing must not be applied so liberally to anyone that holds views different from the state narrative. This exercise by state officials as well as other citizens is dangerous, especially when it is done without any evidence. The state and those in complete agreement with its policies should embrace all criticism emanating from its own citizens and work issues out through dialogue so as to minimise any likelihood of attempts by hostile forces to seize that opportunity.

These allegations also put the life of the people in danger, as seen in the case of missing bloggers and journalists that have been forcibly disappeared. Enforced disappearances no matter done by whom indicate state failure, either in following due process or in failing to provide security to its citizens, undermining rights guaranteed under Article 10 relating to arrest and fair trial, and dignity of persons under Article 14 of the Constitution.

There is a dire need for change in the terms of debate in the national discourse by Pakistani citizens in accordance with fundamental rights that all citizens are entitled to. The memory of those who have struggled and sacrificed for fundamental rights in Pakistan, as well as the rights of future generations deserve to be respected. When that happens, the resultant tolerance and constructive debate will certainly help foster a society that can move towards prosperity and stability in Pakistan, something that all citizens deserve with equality.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2018