The federal government has prepared a bill to amend the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) where up to five-year imprisonment will be awarded to whoever scandalises or ridicules the Pakistan Army and judiciary through any medium, Dawn.com has learnt.

The draft bill, a copy of which has been seen by Dawn.com, was vetted by the Ministry of Law and Justice and initiated by the Ministry of Interior for the prime minister and federal cabinet.

A cabinet summary in this regard outlines the aim of the soon-to-be proposed bill clearly as lately social media has been rife with criticism of the army and courts.

According to sources in the Ministry of Interior, the summary and the bill will be forwarded to the federal cabinet soon.

Titled Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023, the bill suggests a new section 500A after section 500 in PPC 1860. The new section is titled ‘Intentional ridiculing or scandalising of the state institutions etc.’

It says that whoever makes, publishes, circulates any statement or disseminates information, through any medium, with an intention to ridicule or scandalise the judiciary, the armed forces or any of their member will be guilty of an offence punishable with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with a fine which may extend to Rs1 million or with both.

Similarly, in the Schedule II of the PPC, a new section titled 500A has been added to section 500, which says that the offender will be arrested without a warrant and the offence will be non-bailable and non-compoundable which can only be challenged in a sessions court.

The cabinet summary states that recently the country has witnessed a spate of scandalous, derogatory and vicious attacks on certain institutions of the state, including the judiciary and armed forces.

It adds that it is well-known that a deliberate cyber campaign has been launched by certain wings for self-serving motives with the objective of inciting and nurturing hatred against important state institutions and their officials.

It also states that such attacks are focused on undermining the integrity, stability and independence of the country’s state institutions. The summary says that judicial and army officials do not have the opportunity to step forward and negate scandalous, derogatory remarks while appearing in the media.

The document suggests that given the long-tested legal principle noted in Section 196 of the CrPC, prior approval of the federal government before taking cognisance of the case or registration of a first information report (FIR) against any person has been made mandatory to avoid misuse of the mooted PPC section.

PML-N’s Shahid Khaqan Abbasi lends support

When approached for a comment on the planned legislation, PML-N leader and former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told Dawn.com that he had not seen the draft but there had to be “some limit” to defaming someone.

“Everywhere in the world there is a defamation law and this does not happen that anyone comes up willy-nilly and says whatever they want,” he said.

Later in the day in a tweet, Abbasi distanced himself from his comments and said he “simply cannot lend support to any draconian legislation”.

“I believe that Pakistan needs defamation laws with financial recourse to protect everyone from unsubstantiated accusations,” he explained.

Quipping at the former premier, former human rights minister and PTI leader Shireen Mazari said: “So this is what Reimagining Pakistan is all about.”

Abbasi is part of a group of political mavericks — including former finance minister Miftah Ismail, former senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar and former Balochistan chief minister Aslam Raisani — holding a series of nationwide seminars as part of the ‘Reimagining Pakistan’ campaign on the current challenges being faced by the country in an effort to develop a consensus on the future course of action required to be taken by all stakeholders to bring Pakistan out of the present mess.

Mazari said the proposed bill was the “final blow to democracy in Pakistan”.

“An Orwellian State in the making. We politicians should remember such measures come back to haunt all of us eventually!”

PML-N’s Rohail Asghar also said no such laws should be passed by the government, adding that if such legislation were to sail through, “it would rebound on those bringing them”.

He rubbished the notion that criticising institutions amounted to their defamation, saying that if voters could criticise their constituency heads then anyone could be. Asghar added that clamping down on freedom of expression would yield no benefit and there should be space allowed for criticism.

Previous attempts at similar legislation

A similar draft bill was approved by a National Assembly (NA) standing committee in April 2021 which proposed up to two years imprisonment and a fine for those who “intentionally ridicule the armed forces”. The draft had drawn the ire of politicians from across the divide as well as the legal fraternity.

The criticism of the bill was not only from opposition parties but also from the then-federal ministers Fawad Chaudhry and Dr Shireen Mazari.

“Absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalise criticism, respect is earned, cannot be imposed on people. I strongly feel instead of new such laws contempt of court laws should be repealed,” Chaudhry had said in a tweet.

The bill, titled Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2020, was introduced by PTI legislator Amjid Ali Khan and was approved by the NA committee amid strong objections from the PPP’s Agha Rafiullah and PML-N’s Marriyum Aurangzeb. However, it did not sail through the two houses for undeclared reasons.

Likewise, the government in November last year had approved an amendment to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Act 1974, which empowered the agency to act against anyone who intends to spread “rumours and false information against state institutions” on social media.

After the reports of the amendment, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah had told reporters in parliament that if the bill was against the freedom of expression then “we won’t pass it and won’t be with it.”

No such legislation has taken place since then.

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