ISLAMABAD: Pakistani journalists and lawyers on Thursday urged the government to formulate a mechanism to follow before registering cases under laws related to sedition, saying this was a pre-requisture to avoiding discrimination, vengeance and suppression of freedom of expression.
Pakistani governments and even private individuals have filed cases against journalists and activists in recent years under colonial-era sedition and incitement laws. A majority of these cases are registered under section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly known as the sedition law, and its sections 505 and 506, for incitement and promoting hatred between different religious, racial, or regional groups.
Pakistan’s sedition law carries sentences of life imprisonment which lawyers and journalists say was a “harsh punishment” used by governments to silence critics and suppress freedom of expression.
“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the federal or provincial government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine,” Pakistan’s law of sedition says.
“This section of the law is of sensitive nature and its implementation needs to be regulated,” Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), told Arab News. “There must be a mechanism that needs to be followed before registration of a criminal case under the sedition law … The due process must be followed to avoid discrimination and vengeance.”
Butt said a majority of the cases registered under sedition and incitement laws were later quashed by the courts for being “frivolous in nature and lodged in violation of the merit.”
“Criminal cases are not registered against journalists anywhere in the world on the basis of their news and analysis,” he said, adding that Pakistani governments had been using these laws to gag journalists and media houses for decades.
“These laws should either be abolished completely, or reformed at least to ensure their just application,” Butt said.
The Pakistan government says it does not suppress the press.
Legal experts have also raised questions over the sedition law, calling for its repeal to ensure the freedom of expression.
“There is need to at least revisit this British-era law’s characteristics and features to avoid its misuse by the authorities,” Advocate Mian Ali Ashfaq, who recently represented journalist Imran Riaz Khan in sedition cases, told Arab News.
He said the charge of sedition against anybody was of a “heinous nature” that would quickly invite public reaction, therefore a vetting process before registration of the case should be made mandatory.
“Proper protocols should be set up to see if the sedition charges against a journalist or activist were substantiated and tangible,” he said. “There must be no blanket application of the law.”
Advocate Abid Saqi, who challenged the application of sedition laws in a case in the Lahore High Court in October 2020, said the law was made when there was no concept of the constitution and the freedom of expression.
“This law must be abolished,” he told Arab News, “as this is against the fundamental rights of the citizens including the freedom of expression.”