Ridiculous laws – 10 Feb 2023

IT seems our politicians never learn. In their eagerness to appease the powers that be, they keep coming up with terrible ways to undermine fundamental rights and concede even more power to unelected quarters. One such legislation currently under consideration in parliament seeks to penalise the ridiculing of the Pakistan Army and the country`s judiciary with severe jail terms and / or hefty fines. Titled the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023, the draft bill has reportedly been vetted by the Ministry of Law and Justice, headed by the PML-N`s Azam Nazeer Tarar, af ter being initiated by the Ministry of Interior, currently headed by Rana Sanaullah, also from the PML-N.

The bill seeks to add new sections to the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure to make the `crime` of `intentionally ridiculing` the armed forces or judiciary punishable with up to five years in prison and/ or a fine of up to Rs1 million, and also to give law enforcement agencies the power to arrest a suspected offender without a warrant. The offence will be non-bailable and non-compoundable and only challengeable through a sessions court. The only check and balance offered is that the government of the day will approve each case before it is prosecuted. However, given the pliability of our civilian overlords when under enough pressure, that is hardly something to take comfort in.

It ought to be mentioned that this legislation has been proposed in response to what the government has described as a `deliberate cyber campaign` against `important state institutions and their officials`. However, if the recent banning of internet knowledge resource Wikipedia is any indication of how deeply suspicious our authorities are of digital platforms and how little they understand them, this latest attempt to control online narratives, too, will backfire. It will invariably be used to stifle any criticism of state policies that are opposed by the general public and will soon come back to haunt those championing it today.

The PTI government had issued the Peca Ordinance this same month last year. The Islamabad High Court thankfully shot the law down in April 2022, and the party was lucky to be spared its consequences. `The criminalisation of defamation, protection of individual reputations through arrest and imprisonment and the resultant chilling effect violates the letter of the Constitution, the court had noted in reference to the freedom of expression granted to all citizens. Almost a year on, a new government is repeating the PTI`s blunder despite that ruling. It seems that certain quarters simply do not care what the law says just what they want it to say. One cannot help but wonder if it is perhaps the law of the land which actually needs protection from repeated ridicule by the country`s elite.

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