THE right to freedom of speech as stipulated in Article 19 of the Constitution is subject to “reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of … the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan”, etc. In practice however, the list of topics out of bounds for the ordinary mortals living in this country is a long one, and they ignore it at their peril. The concept of ‘national security’ is being applied so broadly as to even preclude fair comment — indeed, to extend blanket immunity to certain personalities themselves. That is a specious use of the term. Not content with this, some representatives of the people have decided to go further and give these unreasonable restrictions the force of law. On Tuesday, a private member’s bill was tabled in the National Assembly proposing amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code whereby anyone who “intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the armed forces of Pakistan or a member thereof” will be liable to “imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with a fine up to Rs500,000 or both”.

There is in this country no dearth of admiration for our armed forces. It is manifested when they assist civilian administrations in rescuing victims of earthquakes and floods; when their helicopters pluck stranded climbers from frozen mountainsides; and, most of all, when soldiers are martyred while defending Pakistan. No one would ridicule or defame them when they acquit themselves honourably in their duty to safeguard the nation’s territorial integrity. It is only when they stray from that path into the dirty world of politics and business that they render their institution controversial. Governance and policymaking is not their domain. In the past, some chiefs of army staff such as Gen Jehangir Karamat tried to keep the military within its constitutional bounds, and saw the institution’s reputation enhanced for it. Gen Qamar Bajwa would also earn plaudits were he to distance the army from civilian affairs. This country has lived through multiple military dictatorships; and senior security forces personnel, retired and otherwise, run vast corporate concerns. Parliament must not place these areas beyond the scope of fair comment, which is made in the public interest and thereby constitutes a defence against a charge of defamation. Surely the military itself would rather not be seen as so intolerant of constructive criticism.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2020

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