Audacity to dissent

Albert Arooj Bhatti

The world is now heading towards World War III and we are embroiled in the issue of freedom of speech and expression. A sword is dangling among the public as the government has promulgated a presidential ordinance for the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) last week, raising concerns over the state of media freedom in the country.

According to the new amendments, the PTI government has included company, association, institution, or authority as a ‘person’, while imprisonment for defamation has been increased from three to five years and it has been declared a cognizable non-bailable offense. The trial court has been directed to wind up cases within six months and will have to submit update reports to the high court every month. The ordinance also instructs the high court to remove any obstacles in the speedy disposal of the case.

These are the salient points of this ordinance but it is yet to become law. An ordinance is valid for a certain period of time until it is ratified by parliament. Unfortunately, the PTI government has violated democratic norms and has relied on ordinances instead rather than bringing the issues in parliament for debate. This has become a norm for the government ever since it came to power. No doubt the government can issue ordinances in case of an emergency or urgent matter when it can bypass parliament.

It is mind-boggling to comprehend what was the hurry that prompted the government to amend an existing law and issue an ordinance.

It must be mentioned that this law to stop dissent and criticism was not made by PTI but rather by the PML-N government. Interestingly, the PML-N is now challenging it in the courts and Maryam Nawaz is the most vocal critic. She should perhaps remember the law was enacted when she had a tight control over state media. The current government has made the law more controversial and is facing the heat.

The honour and dignity of every person are equal under the law. No one has the right to defame or tarnish the reputation of any person or institution by hurling baseless allegations. Today, the PML-N is protesting against the PECA Ordinance but it did not tolerate any criticism either when in power and is now raising an unnecessary hue and cry.

I admit that vulgar language was used during the container politics but we clearly remember the smear campaign the PML-N launched against Benazir Bhutto. The Daughter of Sindh was given very nasty titles and even distasteful pictures were showered from helicopters to disgrace her. History is witness to the vitriol the PML-N hurled against her and now has the audacity to complain.

Compared to PML-N, the PTI further promoted the use of vulgar language which has now become part of our mainstream politics. It has become a norm to taunt, ridicule, or make fun of others in rallies and official ceremonies whether it is Bilawal’s accent or Maryam’s appearance.

Ethics and morality have little to do with politics in Pakistan today. The two major political parties in the country have a distinguished past in slander and using vulgar language, and interestingly want to ban dissent. With regards to fake news, PTI’s social media is most prominent in spreading disinformation. The new law is being challenged in court and PML-N has been advised to raise the matter in Parliament.

It is unsure if politicians will be implicated under the law but journalists and social media bloggers will definitely be targeted. If Imran Khan sees his old speeches before bringing defamation in the code of law, then maybe he will realize the seriousness of the matter.

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