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EDITORIAL: Last Friday, Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah gave a momentous judgement in favour of freedom of expression. Hearing petitions filed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Pakistan Broadcasters Association, and civil society members challenging the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022, the honourable Justice declared the ordinance as “unconstitutional, invalid beyond reasonable doubt”.

Also struck down was Section 20 of the PECA Act, 2016, to the extent it harmed the reputation and the punishment thereof. As Justice Minallah aptly observed: “freedom of expression is a fundamental right, and it reinforces all other rights guaranteed under the Constitution”. Furthermore, he averred, “free speech protected under Article 19 and the right to receive information under Article 19-A of the Constitution are essential for development, progress and prosperity of a society.”

It is sad, indeed, that both the 2016 law and the subsequent amendment through an ordinance were promulgated by democratically elected governments. Outgoing prime minister Imran Khan often gave credit to independent media for providing him with opportunities to spread his message when he was out of power and lacked the resources to reach out to the people.

Yet it was under him that several attempts were made to curb media freedoms, though in large part successfully resisted each time by the media fraternity. Refusing to give up the government went on to make PECA more draconian. Defamation of “natural persons” was reconsidered and expanded criminalisation of the offence to include “any company, association or body of persons whether incorporated or not, institutions, organisations, authority or any other body established by the government.

” In other words, any criticism of the government was impermissible. And it could invite serious trouble being punishable with imprisonment extending to seven years or with fine up to Rs 5 million, or both. It was nothing other than a blatant move to suppress all voices of dissent. It needs to be noted that defamation was already clearly defined under Section 499 of the Pakistan Penal Code and made an actionable offence. The additional PECA clauses could only be seen as an attempt at restricting freedom of expression which, needless to say, has no place in any democratic polity.

The media organisations as well as civil society have demonstrated, once again, they will not accept any curbs on their hard won democratic freedoms. That though may not be the end of their struggles. Those in power need to realise that reliance on restrictive measures does no good to governance. Nations thrive where democratic and human rights are respected. Freedom of expression only reinforces these much desired values.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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