Speakers vow to protect freedom of expression

LAHORE/ ISLAMABAD: Lawyers, human rights activists, politicians and journalists on Thursday vehemently opposed the government decision to regulate the social media and imposition of self-censorship on the mainstream media, vowing to resist all laws aimed at curbing the freedom of expression under the pretext of national security.

Speaking at two different venues, they feared that the regulations, if implemented, would place further restrictions on the social media, curtail freedom of speech and violate people’s fundamental rights. They said it would give state overreaching powers to penalise citizens on vague definitions of national security and interest.

Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) MNA Rana Sanaullah Khan, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Punjab President Qamar Zaman Kaira, Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement MNA Mohsin Dawar, Afrasiab Khattak and Ahsan Wayn of Awami National Party, rights activist IA Rehman, journalist Imtiaz Alam and Ayaz Ameer, Muneezay Jahangir, Advocate Hina Jillani, Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) Vice Chairman Abid Saqi spoke on a seminar in Lahore.

The participants expressed their concerns about safety of journalists, saying that 34 journalists had been murdered since 1992, and only partial justice had been provided in three cases, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

They demanded swift justice in all cases including the recent murder of Aziz Memon, who worked for KTN.

All laws which curb freedom of expression under the pretext of national security should be repealed to guarantee citizens’ right to freedom of expression and free speech. In particular Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, 2016 or online defamation is a draconian provision that has been used to target dissidents, HR activists and marginalised groups, the participants resolved.

They also condemned the harassment and intimidation of journalists and critics of the state under the pretext of enforcing laws related to defaming state institutions. This policy itself is dictatorial and an attack on citizens civil and political rights. They also condemned self-censorship enforced on mainstream media.

They resolved that journalists’ safety bill should be passed which had been tabled in the parliament, adding that other bills pending in parliament including criminalisation of enforced disappearances and Anti-Torture Bill 2019 that protects citizens’ fundamental rights should be passed & enforced. The truth and reconciliation commission must be established for enforced disappearances.

The government has signed the ILO convention and should abide by it in CPEC economic zones where labourers are not allowed to form unions or protest.

The PBC also announced holding of all political parties’ conference on “Unconstitutional Restrictions on Expression” issue soon.

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 Fayyaz Ranjha calmed the protesting lawyers and assured them that there would be nothing ‘objectionable’ at the event.

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 the traitor,” he added.

He 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 the traitors.

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

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

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

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

Rana, 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 added that 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.

PPP’s Kaira also slammed the government for clamping down the mainstream and social media, saying 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.

He admitted that there were shortcomings within the political parties. He said the citizens required to struggle for their rights as compilation and not as an option.

Imtiaz Alam said restriction on freedom of expression was violation of fundamental rights and people of Pakistan had been kept at bay from truth.

He stressed lawyers, media and political parties to continue their struggle for the rights of freedom of expression, without which a country would not progress.

Myra Imran adds from Islamabad: Terming Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 an attack on fundamental rights of freedom of expression and a threat to country’s digital economy, the journalistic union, lawyer’s associations and civil society, on Thursday rejected the new rules and urged the government to immediately de-notify these rules.

In a joint press conference organised by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) in collaboration with Media Matters for Democracy (MMFD), the union leaders and rights activists demanded of the government to bring any such future regulation on social media after a proper consultation with the stakeholders. The press conference was addressed by the General Secretary of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists Nasir Zaidi, General Secretary Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Haris Khaleeq, General Secretary Islamabad Bar Council Umair Baloch, senior journalists M Ziaudin and Hamid Mir and Co Founder of MMFD Sadaf Baig.

On this occasion, a statement regarding the rules was presented by Nasir Zaidi which was endorsed by the PFUJ, Supreme Court Bar Association, Islamabad High Court Bar Association, Rawalpindi High Court Bar Association and senior journalists and human rights activists. The speakers said that the new rules clearly give an impression that this law has been made to curb the basic right of freedom of expression of general public. They termed it a positive sign that Prime Minister Imran Khan has directed the relevant department to hold consultation on rules before implementation but urged the Prime Minister to immediately denotify these rules through written order and issue a comprehensive consultation plan for any future regulation on social media.

While announcing the future strategy, General Secretary PFUJ Nasir Zaidi said that PFUJ has announced nation-wide protests against the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. “The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists will hold joint press conferences in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta press clubs. Besides that, a national conference will be organized on February 27 at the National Press Club where a declaration will be passed presenting the demands of media and civil society.”

Sadaf Baig said that the government is giving wrong impression that the rules were formulated to protect Pakistani users from online harm and it will help generate revenue through digital app economy. “Millions of people are running their businesses through digital media which is much larger than app economy,” she said while demanding the government to clarify the legal status of these rules. “Only Parliament has the right to formulate and amend laws. These rules are actually the violation of the rights of Parliament.”

While presenting the view of HRCP, Haris Khaleeq said that these rules are the violation of political, cultural and economic rights of general public. He said that people especially rights defenders are already working under strict surveillance. He endorsed the statement presented by PFUJ.

Hamid Mir said that the new rules are anti Pakistan and will deteriorate the image of the country at international level. He said that FIA is already performing the role of implementing agency of laws related to digital world and creation of new mechanism with extraordinary powers given to national coordinator. Collective statement issued on this occasion said that it is a matter of concern that the power of national coordinator could be misused to target warranted criticism by Pakistani citizens and the credible reporting of news organisation. The social media rules make no mention of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Pakistani citizens, including the right to freedom of expression. The rules only focus on blocking and removal of content.

It mentions that the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf and other political parties effectively used social media during their election campaigns and political leaders use these networks regularly to stay in touch with their constituents as well as to comment on current affairs. Social welfare organisations use social media networks to highlight issues of public importance and spread awareness of noble causes.

Similarly, the government of Pakistan has used social media to project the country’s positive image, conduct public diplomacy, and issue statements related to its foreign policy. If it comes to the complete blocking of social networks, the government, the political parties, and the civil society organisations will be robbed of these opportunities.

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