Rights advocates, opposition politicians, and lawyers have opposed draft changes to the Pakistani criminal law that recommend a two-year prison sentence or more than $3,200 in fines for anyone who “intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames” the country’s military.
The proposed bill was adopted by the committee on interior in the National Assembly, the popularly elected lower house of the Pakistani parliament, on April 7. The bill still needs majority approval in the National Assembly and the Senate or upper house to become law. But it comes on the heels of government efforts to regulate social media while activists continue to face threats, kidnapping, and violence for allegedly criticizing the security forces.
“If it is passed, it will be used as a tool against the political victims,” Khush Dil Khan, vice chairman of the Pakistan Bar Council, said in a statement on April 8. “If it is passed then the Pakistan Bar Council will oppose it tooth and nail.”
The bill moved by Amjad Ali Khan, a lawmaker affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party, seeks to amend the Code of Criminal Procedure, the main legislation tasked with administering criminal law.
“Whosoever intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the Armed Forces of Pakistan or a member thereof, he shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment or a term,” the text of the proposed law circulated on social media noted, adding that this “may extend to two years, or with fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees, or with both.”
Lawmaker Rafiullah Agha, a member of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, opposed the draft amendment in the parliamentary committee. He says the amendment is uncalled for because his country’s laws and constitution have enough provisions to deal with such issues.
“This proposed law will enhance a false perception, which says that people in Pakistan are against the military,” he told Radio Mashaal. “It is against the [fundamental] provisions of our constitution, which guarantees the freedom of expression,” he added. “The constitution of Pakistan says that all citizens are equal and there are no sacred cows.”
Such criticism appeared to pressure the government with at least one minister opposing it openly. “Absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalize criticism, respect is earned, cannot be imposed on people,” Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted on April 8. “Seriously doubt if Armed forces demanded such law, Army in Pakistan is loved and respected by every Pakistani.”
But Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker, says the real motive behind the proposed law is to muzzle social media. “They are already censoring and controlling print and electronic media, so this is an effort to silence any criticism on social media,” he told Gandhara.
Since 2018, mounting censorship of print and electronic has even forced leading Pakistani journalists to rely on social media for disseminating their reporting. Twitter, in particular, has emerged as the main platform of debate and discussion.
Last week, a robust social media campaign led to the return of Sarmad Sultan, an amateur historian who mysteriously disappeared amid speculations that he had been picked up by intelligence agents. He frequently posted probing questions about Pakistan’s checkered past that often clashed with the country’s official history and what are widely seen as government-sanctioned viewpoints.
“What happened to me, my family, and younger brother is a question mark on the state and its institutions,” he said in a brief video. “Who will answer these questions -- you, me, or the state’s institutions?” he asked.
The Pakistani government still plans to eventually implement social media regulations that have prompted tech giants to threaten to leave the country because the proposed rules give authorities blanket powers to censor digital content. A court in Islamabad is also hearing a case about the regulations that the government is currently reviewing.
Earlier this month, Pakistan reinstated access to video-sharing app TikTok three weeks after banning it for spreading offensive content.