NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 37

Freedom of expression and democracy

History shows that numerous political models were developed over hundreds of years to govern and control societies. Earlier political ideologies emphasised coercion, fraud and force. These models are still in place as monarchies, oligarchies, military dictatorships, plutocracies, and hybrid governments. However, they have drawn a lot of criticism and wrath in our modern age.

On the other hand, the democratic system of government has received unparalleled recognition from contemporary political bodies. Although it might not be the best political system that human societies have ever used, it is the best among the current forms of government. This democratic fervour is caused by the immeasurable benefits that all democracies have achieved.

Information is indispensable for the very existence and flourishing of democracy. In fact, “information is the oxygen of democracy. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule are hidden, they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society”, declares the public’s right to know: principles on Freedom Information legislation of the UK.

To strengthen democratic culture and accountability, the UK has bestowed the “right to know” on its citizens by introducing and implementing the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) in the country. The act ensures the legitimate right of access to government information and promotes transparency in the functioning of the government. The act has transformed the culture of government from one of secrecy to one of transparency. For the first time, anyone can gain access to any information kept by the country’s numerous government agencies.

It is also a fact that the UK introduced freedom of information legislation after many developed nations had already introduced and implemented the law in their respective countries. The US has had legislation since 1966, while France has had legislation since 1978, Australia and Canada since 1982, and Ireland since 1997.

The Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution also accepts the right of information in these words: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court (commission of) or incitement to an offence.”

But, in reality, every government, including political and military governments, tried its level best to curtail the freedom of expression by introducing draconian media laws. The Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO), 1962, Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Services) Act, 1973, Press Council Ordinance, 2002, Press, Newspaper, News Agencies and Books Registration (PNNBR) Ordinance, 2002, Defamation Ordinance, 2002 and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002 etc, have been used by governments to control the media.

In the present Shehbaz Sharif’s government, prominent journalists, like Ayaz Amir and Sami Ibrahim, have been attacked by unidentified persons. While, Imran Riaz Khan, Arshad Sharif, Sabir Shakir, Moeed Pirzada and Jameel Farooqi are the target of judicial proceedings.

Zahid Hussain, writing about Ayaz Amir’s incident, said: “It all happened a day after his speech at a seminar in Islamabad that went viral on social media. It was scathing and full of sarcasm. It irked the powers that be who seem to be on edge these days. Tolerance levels seem to have gone down in the current political storm. Ayaz Amir may have been scathing but there was nothing in his remarks that is not being talked about. He didn’t reveal any state secrets. It was the truth, perhaps, put too forthrightly for the liking of some elements belonging to a ‘sensitive’ institution — hence the response in the shape of the crude use of power that we have witnessed so often being applied against those who dare to speak out. Ayaz may be the latest and a more high-profile victim of this high-handedness, but there have been a number of other such cases in recent times. Distressingly, there are a growing number of reports of journalists and rights activists being harassed, beaten and intimidated.”

The situation was so pathetic that The Reporters Without Borders included the name of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in the list of 37 heads of state and government who became the “predators of press freedom” in their countries in its previous report about curbs on the media published after a gap of five years.

There is no doubt about it that political engineering has seriously harmed civil institutions and undermined the democratic process. It is imperative that all institutions refrain from engaging in illicit activity and entirely disengage from the political power struggle. Moreover, all curbs on the media and journalists should be removed to strengthen democracy in Pakistan. Because freedom of expression and democracy go hand in hand.