PAKISTAN: State infringes upon the people’s right to freedom of speech

By Javeria Younes

Intellectual freedom has always been viewed as a threat to hegemonic and tyrannical government, for whom dissent in any form is unacceptable, as it shakes the very foundation upon which the tyrannical status quo rests. Ideas and ideologies encompassing freedom and equality for the masses are always dangerous, as the existence of the elite is sustained through systematic subjugation and discrimination of the vulnerable and downtrodden.

Since 2014, the Pakistani state has been systematically silencing intellectuals. Dr. Waheed Rehman, Ms.Sabeen Mehmood, Ms. Debora Lobo, Dr. Muhammad Shakil Auj, Rashid Rehman and many others have become a casualty of the war against intellectuals. Many academics stalwarts like Dr.Mubarak Ali, Dr Pervai Hoodbhoy, Hassan Zafar, Dr Riaz Ali, Mehar afroz Murad, Ayesha Siddiqa and bloggers like Salman Goraya and several others are harassed and tortured over national television for their criticism of state policies and the mullah-military azlliance.

While Pakistan snubs intellectual discourse, it covertly encourages hate speech against dissenters. State institutions preach that dissent and free thought is a disease of the mind and thus abhorred.This proves catastrophic for the moral fabric of society, with intellectuals and academics, and all other dissenters, often targeted under the pretext of national security or blasphemy. Such allegations can cost lives, or at least reputations. 
It is unfortunate that as a signatory to various conventions calling for responsible free speech, Pakistan regularly curtails the right of intellectuals and academics to free discourse and speech. It is even more unfortunate that the government turns a blind eye to all the hate mongering through hate speech by its religious proxies.

There is a very fine line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate whereas hate speech incites violence. Free speech exercised in a manner so as not to hurt the sentiments of a vulnerable faction is the real litmus test of freedom of expression being exercised with responsibility.

Intellectual freedom should not be curtailed in the name of national interest or counter terrorism; the state needs to draw a clear and coherent line between the two. The National Action Plan (NAP), which was unveiled amid much fanfare, has failed in drawing a clear distinction on what construes free speech vs. what amounts to hate mongering.

For instance, the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Jamat ul Ahrar, a renowned terrorist organisation, responsible for the Lahore attack in February 2017, killing several persons, were not blocked until after the attack, despite the state’s crack down on hate speech, as enunciated in its National Action Plan. Meanwhile, progressive liberal webpages are blocked and their authors disappeared. Similarly, hate speech against the Ahmadis from the pulpit and national television also continues unabated. The government of Pakistan is conspicuously silent on an organized and malicious campaign started by two television channels for inciting hate and violence against Ahmadis.

The establishment has strategically placed its mouthpiece at several channels who parrot the narrative suited to their vested interest. By inciting people to act against blasphemers, the state can wipe its hands clean of murder as “collateral damage” caused due to the cavalier attitude of the unfortunate leftist activists.

Ideally, the state should only step in to limit freedom of speech in cases where hatred towards an entire group is being promoted. With neither the will nor the means to do this, the government has rather been emphasizing on curbing and censoring speech in its entirety. For instance, when a derogatory video on the Prophet Muhammud (PBUH) was uploaded on YouTube, the whole website was blocked by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) citing that they do not have the technology to block a particular video.

International conventions, treaties and local legislation do provide a legal framework to strike a balance between two mutually exclusive ideas. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), states that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Section 153 A(a) and (b) of Pakistan Penal Code covers the aspect of establishing human rights norms that protect freedom of conscience and ultimately freedom of religion quiet aptly. The problem lies in the zero tolerance approach of the state to criticism of its policies, particularly those pertaining to military involvement in state affairs. Criticism of the military is often viewed with the lens of hate speech.

To encourage freedom of expression while rightly muzzling hate speech, the state must ensure that it does not count one groups’ free speech interests more heavily than that of others. To allow the people to disavow hate speech, Pakistan’s education system needs to be reformed, to inculcate habits of critical thinking and healthy skepticism among the pupils.

A pluralistic curriculum will enable the populace to empathize with vulnerable communities and groups as well as adopting and propagating pluralist values. The state must encourage and inspire the citizens to speak out on injustices and voice dissent whenever necessary.

Meanwhile, journalists need to come together to draw up a fresh code of conduct that can form the basis of future action by the Press Council and PEMRA.

Hate speech produces hate crime, which is often a precursor to terrorism. By allowing extremist elements to propagate their hate and silencing the moderates, the state is infringing upon the people’s right to freedom of speech. It is in the interest of the state and the society at large to renounce hate speech while embracing intellectual discourse. For the existence and sustainability of any society, it is essential for the intellectuals to be honored rather than disowned, and freedom of expression jealously guarded. Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order for every man to present his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.

Advocate Javeria Younes: a social activist and legal researcher who endeavors for an egalitarian society free from torture. She can be reached at

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-018-2017
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Democracy, Freedom of assembly, Freedom of expression, Human rights defenders, Judicial system, Rule of law,