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Pakistani Government’s attempt to muzzle Freedom of Speech Pakistan Government
Image: Pixabay

Pakistani Government’s attempt to muzzle Freedom of Speech

India Blooms News Service | @indiablooms | 27 Mar 2023, 10:58 pm

According to media reports in Pakistan, the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government is seriously considering the creation of a specialised “task force” to scrutinise social media campaigns that are detrimental to the army’s image.

A proposal to establish the task force has been submitted, but it is still pending approval.

The proposed task force will be composed of officers from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), and the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).

The police and other law enforcement agencies will also be available to assist the task force with the primary objective to identify and prevent the misuse of social media.

Many analysts consider this task force as another attempt to muzzle voices of dissent against the powerful military establishment in Pakistan.

More importantly, through this new draconian government body, the ruling PDM is trying to win favours from the military establishment.

The timing of proposing the task force is interesting, possibly prompted by the PDM government’s allegations that Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and its leader, former prime minister Imran Khan, are engaged in a “malicious campaign” against the military.

The ongoing vicious campaign on social media websites has become a reflection of Pakistan’s increasing political polarisation, as several online trends have emerged that allegedly defame the Pakistan army and its officers.

It is noteworthy that Imran Khan does not have the support of the serving Chief of Army Staff General Syed Asim Munir, which the ruling PDM is attempting to exploit through such military establishment-friendly proposals.

The new task force will directly target Imran Khan and his party supporters as they have been openly defaming the Pakistan army and intelligence agencies.

However, the ruling government is presenting the task force as a body to regulate “false propaganda and insensitive comments on social media” against the military.

For example, a vicious online trolling took place after the killing of six army officers — including corps commander Lt Gen Sarfraz Ali — in a helicopter crash in Balochistan last August.

At the time, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Babar Iftikhar, was compelled to issue a strong condemnation of the “false online propaganda” aimed at the army, primarily by supporters of the PTI who were angry with the military establishment’s hand in removing Imran Khan from power in April 2022.

Subsequently, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) formed a team to locate and apprehend those responsible for the alleged online propaganda.

According to reports, eight TikTok accounts, 44 Twitter accounts, and more than 50 Facebook accounts had been identified as allegedly participating in “anti-army” campaigns on social media.

Notably, the military establishment’s public reputation is presently at a historical low. Since April last year, the top leadership of the Pakistan army and ISI has been targeted openly by PTI supporters and party members.

Attempts to stop the online propaganda against the military have failed miserably.

Consequently, Rawalpindi is forcing the ruling PDM government to legally quell the army’s criticism on social media in Pakistan.

A similar attempt was made in February to pass the legislation for a special task force dealing with the matter.

However, disagreements arose among cabinet members when a bill proposing a crackdown on social media was introduced for approval by the apex body.

During a cabinet meeting, some members suggested that the law should also be applicable to those who defame parliamentarians, while others believed that severe punishment would infringe upon “freedom of expression”.

The interior ministry presented the proposal under the title of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023. The cabinet was informed that despite Section 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code (which deals with punishment for defamation), there was an enduring need for a separate provision to safeguard the judiciary and armed forces from malicious and derogatory attacks.

With the political climate shifting in favour of Imran Khan in Pakistan, the multi-party government led by Shehbaz Sharif is frantically searching for ways to cling to power.

It appears that the military establishment is supporting the ruling PDM against Imran Khan, so any criticism aimed at the “powers-that-be” in Pakistan is likely to originate from PTI party members and supporters.

Despite efforts to stifle anti-army criticism over the past year, all such attempts have failed.

Faced with no other options, the proposed draconian body will be utilised to suppress dissenting voices with force, possibly helping the PDM alliance. In February, the federal government drafted a bill to amend the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), proposing up to “five-year imprisonment” for anyone who scandalises or ridicules the Pakistan Army and judiciary through any medium.

Interestingly, a similar draft bill was approved by a National Assembly (NA) standing committee in April 2021, under the PTI government, which proposed up to two years imprisonment and a fine for those who “intentionally ridicule the armed forces”.

In case the proposed task force gets approval, it will be a major victory for the military and a loss for all political parties in Pakistan, not just PTI.  

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