Global Human Rights Defence

Freedom of expression and the effects of the new security policies on Pakistani society
Close-Up View of System Hacking in a Monitor. Source: © Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels, 2020.

Author: Nicola Costantin 

The new year 2022 has brought critical changes within the Pakistani society in the field of National Security. At the beginning of 2022, the Pakistani government has passed the first-ever National Security Policy (NSP) for the years 2022 to 2026, dictating guidelines for bolstering national cohesion, internal security, and providing guiding principles for foreign policy (NSD Pakistan, 2022). Only a month, on February 18th, after this massive regulation, the government has also passed an ordinance amending the 2016 Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), making online “defamation” of authorities a criminal offence. This shift forward a major control of the State over society has been termed “draconian” and “undemocratic” by media bodies and human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (Amnesty International, 2022; Human Rights Watch, 2022). These two policies raise major concerns over the rights of minorities, and in general, over the right to freedom of expression. 

 

The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has supported the recent amendments to the cybercrime laws, saying they were necessary to eradicate “fake news” (Tariq, 2022). What is “fake news”, however, is a matter of interpretation. Nevertheless, it seems that the terminology “fake news” encompasses anything that questions and criticises the government’s policies. Indeed, the PECA has expanded its definition of “person”, including “any company, association or body of persons, … institution, organisation, authority or any other body established by the government under any law or otherwise.” The modifications of the PECA made the online “defamation” of authorities a non-bailable offence with prison penalties of three to five years (Sheehy, 2022). Yet, the offence has also become cognizable, which means that the police will be able to arrest the alleged criminal without a warrant issued by a court. Moreover, the successive step, i.e. the trial, must be concluded within six months under the supervision of a High Court, and in some cases, any citizen – and not only the aggrieved party – might become a complainant in the court process (Amnesty International, 2022). As it is immediately evident, the PECA contains extremely vague provisions, and at the same time tool which can be used as a powerful tool by the authorities to criminalise legitimate forms of expression based on supposed national security concerns and to protect majoritarian interpretations of Islam. 

This vision must also be read with the newly released NSP. Although the Security Policy makes significant claims about strengthening the rule of law, ensuring fundamental freedoms, equality for all citizens, and fostering “unity through diversity”, the document labels the ethnic and religious minorities as “sub-national narratives” (NSD Pakistan, 2022). With this terminology, authorities speculate that these “sub-national narratives” are hostile agencies that generate a narrative of grievance attempting to secede from the State (NSD Pakistan,2022). Labelling religious minorities as violent sub-national in the NSP creates a legal ground in order to repress such movements and rehabilitate the security in the region. The most alarming part of the document is the importance of “hybrid warfare” by the government, used to “foster patriotism and social cohesion through national values…” (NSD Pakistan, 2022). Again, it can be seen as the “preservation of the Islamic character as enshrined in the Constitution”, which is the core mission of the government. This means that by fully controlling the released information and the discussions in the online world, the authority checks and prosecutes any person who might criticise or disapprove actions different from the Islamic character decreed in the Constitution. As explicitly stated on the NSP, a “whole-of-nation approach” must be implemented in order to contrast “disinformation [and] influence operations”, by therefore controlling media and civil society (NSD Pakistan, 2022). Consequently, it is easy to imagine that the Baloch, the Sindhis, the Pashtuns – which have been termed traitors by officials and are considered “sub-national narratives” within the NSP – might face severe repercussions under the pretext of national security (Sirmed, 2022). 

Farieha Aziz, co-founder of Bolo Bhi, a digital rights advocacy group which is geared towards advocacy, policy, and research in the areas of digital rights and civic responsibility, said to the Diplomat that “the amendment is crafted to go after any critic, without any hindrance and no checks by a court” (Tariq, 2022). Patricia Gossman, Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch added that “the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act neither protects the public from legitimate cybercrime concerns nor respects fundamental human rights”. She continues by saying that “the amendment, in effect, permits authorities to digitally police what people are saying online and levy heavy punishments if they do not like what they are saying” (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have thus strongly opposed the disproportionate and unnecessary Pakistani criminal defamation law, urging the crucial duty to protect the freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is indeed the cornerstone of democracy. Defending freedom of expression is fundamental in order to hold the authorities into account. Likewise, freedom of expression reinforces other human rights such as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – allowing them to be exercised.  Notably, Pakistan has even ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2010, a binding Convention for State Parties. Article 19 of the ICCPR protects the freedom of expression and right to information. Consequently, this Article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. For this reason, restrictions of these rights are permitted pursuant to Article 19.3(b), as long as it is carried out only in specific circumstances “for the protection of national security or of public order”. Nevertheless, such limitation must be necessary and narrowly interpreted, and it must respect the rights and reputations of others. Therefore, the exercise of the rights provided by the ICCPR may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are indispensable to protect other fundamental human rights (ICCPR, 1966).

 

Consequently, by expanding the PECA’s provisions to online statements that “criticise” “any company, association or body of persons, … institution, organisation, authority or any other body established by the Government” might violate Pakistan’s international obligations to respect the freedom of speech and the right to information (Human Rights Watch, 2022; Amnesty International, 2022). Furthermore, these violations are apparent against the backdrop of harassment, prosecution, censors, and even physical attacks against journalists (Sirmed, 2022; CPJ, 2022; Ali, 2022). On February 15th, 2022, one such instance was reported, as the last episode of a long list of attacks against journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), members of an ARY News crew have been abused by intelligence officers at the Karachi office. Syed Iqrarul Hassan, and his reporting team, were tortured with electricity, while they were forced to stay naked with a gun pointed at their head. They were detained after covering a story about an official who allegedly accepted a bribe (CPJ, 2022; Ali, 2022). 

 

This situation strongly contradicts the government’s promises to make the NSP a tool to ensure a strong federation by strengthening democracy and consensus in society. It is not a case that the terms “rule of law” and “human rights” were mentioned solely five and three times respectively throughout the 62 pages of the new Security Policy. Even more shocking is that the words “democracy” and “parliament” are not mentioned even once. Consequently, it is not a surprise that the NSP has been approved outside the democratic process, namely bypassing the National Assembly and Senate, and therefore, leaving the oppositions and the minorities represented within the Parliament excluded from the debate (Banerji, 2022; Daur, 2022). Likewise, the amendments to PECA were also approved by excluding civil society groups and the private sector from consultation, preventing genuine public scrutiny prior to its enactment (Tariq, 2022).  

In conclusion, these two new regulations are a serious manifestation of how the government, by using “national security” as a pretext, plans to consolidate power over every aspect of the country’s governance, every organ of the state, and especially in civil society. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that must be respected in order to guarantee the use of other essential rights – thought, conscience and religion – indispensable within a democratic society. The Pakistani authorities must either repeal the amendment to the PECA completely or align it with international human rights standards according to the ICCPR, which have been ratified by Pakistan. Moreover, the NSP must genuinely respect the rights of minorities and the democratic process, while as it stands, the government might hold too much power under the excuse of National Security. Additionally, the document guarantees to review the progress on NSP annually or when a new government is formed, meaning that a powerful and expanded national security bureaucracy might be shaped, possibly subjugating all the minorities, but also all other organs of the State under this newly envisioned national security superstructure.

















Bibliography 

 

Ali, I. (2022). 5 officials of Intelligence Bureau suspended after TV host Iqrarul Hassan accuses them of torture. DAWN.COM. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://www.dawn.com/news/1675206/5-officials-of-intelligence-bureau-suspended-after-tv-host-iqrarul-hassan-accuses-them-of-torture.

 

Banerji, R. (2022). Pakistan’s National Security Policy: Why this will be just another eyewash and not make any reversal of policy direction. Firstpost. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://www.firstpost.com/world/pakistans-national-security-policy-why-this-will-be-just-another-eyewash-and-not-make-any-reversal-of-policy-direction-10326681.html.

 

Committee to Protect Journalists. (2022). ARY News crew beaten, electrocuted, forced to strip while covering alleged corruption at Pakistan intelligence agency – Committee to Protect Journalists. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://cpj.org/2022/02/ary-news-crew-beaten-electrocuted-forced-to-strip-while-covering-alleged-corruption-at-pakistan-intelligence-agency.

 

Daur, N. (2022). The Jargon-Laced National Security Policy Has Several Hidden Meanings. The Friday Times. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://www.thefridaytimes.com/the-jargon-laced-national-security-policy-has-several-hidden-meanings.

 

Human Rights Watch. (2022). Pakistan: Repeal Amendment to Draconian Cyber Law. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/02/28/pakistan-repeal-amendment-draconian-cyber-law.

 

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (1996). General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI). Retrieved March 21, 2022, from: https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-covenant-civil-and-political-rights.

 

 NSD Pakistan. (2022). National Security Policy of Pakistan 2022-2026. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://dnd.com.pk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/National-Security-Policy-2022-2026.pdf.

 

Pakistan Today. (2022). PM launches public version of National Security Policy. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2022/01/14/pm-launches-public-version-of-national-security-policy/.

 

Sheehy, C. (2022). GNI Response to Ordinance Amending PECA in Pakistan. Global Network Initiative. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://globalnetworkinitiative.org/peca-amendments.

 

Sirmed, M. (2022). The Jargon-Laced National Security Policy Has Several Hidden Meanings. The Friday Times – Naya Daur. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://www.thefridaytimes.com/2022/01/19/the-jargon-laced-national-security-policy-has-several-hidden-meanings.

 

Tariq, W. (2022). Amendment to Pakistan’s Cybercrime Law Sparks Outrage From Free Speech Defenders. Thediplomat.com. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from: https://thediplomat.com/2022/03/amendment-to-pakistans-cybercrime-law-sparks-outrage-from-free-speech-defenders.

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