IN a country where free speech is increasingly facing restrictions, a National Assembly panel’s approval of a bill that seeks to criminalise criticism of the armed forces is bound to generate further misgivings. The bill, which has the endorsement of the interior ministry, was introduced by PTI lawmakers as a response to the growing criticism of the armed forces, some members of which have come under public scrutiny for their alleged interference in matters of governance.

There is no doubt that this nation takes immense pride in its armed forces for their courage in defending the country’s borders and recognises the tremendous sacrifices they have made in the war against terrorism. In fact, the successful military operations that eradicated terrorists from northern Pakistan have been especially lauded. However, no one is above criticism, including the senior leadership of our security apparatus — this includes those perceived as going beyond their scope of responsibilities.

Read: 'Absolutely ridiculous to criminalise criticism,' Fawad says

Since its inception, the country has seen repeated military interventions, the abrogation or suspension of the Constitution, the dismissal of elected parliaments, and the incarceration of political leaders — actions that have been overseen by the defence establishment. It is also no secret that there are occasions where senior commanders have been perceived as indirectly interfering in civilian matters — a reality which did not escape the army chief himself when intelligence officials held police hostage in Karachi last year. The intelligence apparatus, too, has often been accused of unconstitutional behaviour, such as the enforced disappearance of activists.

Given this reality, the move to bring in such legislation sends the wrong message. It would give cause for some to say that the very goal here is to prevent legitimate criticism by opposition politicians and rights groups that have questioned the role of the army in civilian affairs. It would also give weight to the argument that the present dispensation is a hybrid regime. This bill will criminalise legitimate questions about the military’s alleged interference in civilian matters — questions which in a country like Pakistan are necessary as the fear of derailment of the democratic project is ever-present.

Freedom to question here does not mean that the military’s role in defending the country is being doubted. It simply gives people their constitutional right to question the alleged involvement of an institution of the state in affairs that are beyond its constitutional mandate. In the interest of democracy, parliament must ensure that this bill is either abandoned or rejected.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2021

Opinion

Eid and money
Updated 13 May 2021

Eid and money

Why is a thing more real when you can touch, taste or feel it as opposed to something that is only experienced?
On whose side?
Updated 15 May 2021

On whose side?

Our bevy of ambassadors, after their virtual meeting with the PM, must wonder who is on which side.

Editorial

Eid during Covid
Updated 13 May 2021

Eid during Covid

It is indisputable that our actions now will prevent matters from becoming far worse.
Updated 14 May 2021

Foreign policy gaffes

MIXED messages, retractions and clarifications from the government have become an all-too-common occurrence when it...
Zimbabwe series win
Updated 15 May 2021

Zimbabwe series win

For millions of Pakistani fans, it was a thrilling experience to see their team returning to its winning ways.
PM’s Saudi visit
Updated 12 May 2021

PM’s Saudi visit

It is very important that Pakistan take no step, or agree to any demand, that can have an adverse effect on national sovereignty.
12 May 2021

A new intifada?

THE situation in the occupied territories over the past few days has been incendiary, with tensions boiling over as...
Updated 12 May 2021

SOP violations

ON Monday, Sindh Police officials were given a well-deserved slap on the wrist by a judicial magistrate in Karachi...