LAHORE: A seminar addressed by politicians, journalists, rights activists and lawyers on Thursday rejected the government’s decision to regulate social media and condemned self-censorship on mainstream media.

The dialogue was jointly hosted by Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) and the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA) on the topic of “Unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of expression”.

PML-N MNA Rana Sanaullah Khan, PPP Punjab President Qamar Zaman Kaira, Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement MNA Mohsin Dawar, Afrasiab Khattak and Ahsan Wayn of the Awami National Party, veteran rights activist I.A Rehman, journalists Imtiaz Alam, Ayaz Amir, Munizae Jahangir, Advocate Hina Jilani and PBC Vice Chairman Abid Saqi were the prominent speakers.

The proceedings were briefly disrupted as few lawyers including Aftab Virk lodged a protest when MNA Dawar was invited to rostrum to deliver his speech.

However, LHCBA Secretary Fayaz Ranjha calmed the protesting lawyers and ensured them that there will be nothing ‘objectionable’ at the event.

Some lawyers disrupted seminar when MNA Mohsin Dawar was invited for speech

Resuming his speech, Mr Dawar said he had great respect for the opinion of all present at the gathering.

He said no citizen needed to seek certificates of being loyal to the state. He regretted that the history of Pakistan was full of such incidents where people voicing for democracy, constitution and law had been portrayed as “traitor”.

Dawar said the constitution was the document which tied his bond with the state. “Any person including me if violates this constitution is a traitor,” he added.

In an obvious reference to former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, the parliamentarian from Waziristan said the person who called the constitution of Pakistan merely a “piece of paper” was the ‘real traitor’. He said those indulging in politics by violating their oaths were also traitors.

He slammed curbs on media and use of laws of terrorism, sedition, narcotics and ECL as a weapon against politicians and peaceful protesters in a democracy.

Mr Dawar said democracy in the country had never been as much controlled in the past as “it is nowadays.” He said not only media but all institutions were facing oppression.

He called for an effective and responsible role of political parties to get the country rid of the controlled democracy. Otherwise, he said, the political parties and democratic forces would have to pay the price. He urged the parties to sign an updated version of “charter of democracy” to ensure democracy in the country.

Rana Sanaullah Khan agreed to the contentions of Mr Dawar and appreciated non-violent struggle of his party. He said the bar made the country strong by inviting Mr Dawar to the seminar and let him express his views. He said dialogue was the appropriate way to remove misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Mr Khan, who is on bail in a drug case, said the freedom of expression was the basic right of life. He condemned the new media regulations by the government and the attempt in fact meant to silence the dissenting voices.

He sought guidance from the bar to legally defeat the regulations made by the cabinet bypassing the jurisdiction of the parliament.

Mr Kaira also slammed the government for clamping down the mainstream and social media saying the society as a whole will have to stand for its rights. He lamented that the government with the support of state institutions was shrinking the freedom of expression.

A resolution unanimously passed by the participants said the current regulations if implemented would place further restrictions on the social media, curtail freedom of speech and violate people’s fundamental rights and give state overreaching powers to penalise citizens on vague definitions of national security and interest.

It expressed concerns about safety of journalists and demanded a swift justice in all cases including murder of Aziz Memon who worked for KTN.

It said all laws which curb freedom of expression under the pretext of national security needed to be repealed to guarantee citizens’ right to freedom of expression and free speech.

The resolution further demanded that the government abide by ILO convention in CPEC economic zones where labourers were not allowed to form unions or protest.

Mr Saqi also announced that the PBC would arrange an all political parties conference on the same topic in near future.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2020