Members of the federal cabinet are divided over introducing new legislation stipulating a crackdown on social media activists involved in “defaming the armed forces and judiciary”.
Some cabinet members have suggested that the proposed punishments should also be applied to those involved in launching campaigns against parliamentarians.
However, a few cabinet members were of the view that harsh punishments would be considered an act against the freedom of expression.
They proposed that the existing law should be implemented effectively rather than introducing an amendment bill.
The interior ministry had briefed the cabinet in a meeting held last week that the country had recently witnessed a spate of “scandalous, derogatory and vicious” attacks on certain institutions of the State including the armed forces and judiciary on social media.
It had sought the approval of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023.
The cabinet members advised Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif not to take any decision in haste in this connection and suggested forming a committee to examine the bill in detail.
During the discussion, the need for bringing the proposed amendment was highlighted and it was pointed out that a change in the existing law was needed to be carried out to conform with the proposed Section 500-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), making the offence punishable with simple imprisonment.
The cabinet was further informed that despite the presence of Section 500 of the PPC relating to the offence of defamation, there was a long-standing need to have a separate provision in the law to protect the judiciary and armed forces from scandalous and derogatory attacks.
It was explained that the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution, including freedom of expression, had certain caveats.
Article 19 of the Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression to all citizens but this was subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law, it was elaborated.
These restrictions might be among others in the interest of security of Pakistan and in connection with contempt of court.
However, while drafting the proposed amendment, ample care had been exercised to obviate the misuse of the law — first, the intention to ridicule or scandalise had to be established.
Secondly, the FIR could only be registered after approval of the federal government and thirdly, an explanation had been added that it would not be an offence if such a statement or Information was true.
It was also proposed that if the cabinet desired, the punishment could be reduced to three years instead of five.
In addition, it was pointed out that the social media in Pakistan was enjoying unbridled freedom, which was not a norm internationally.
The liberty to scandalise and ridicule State institutions was not available even in developed countries.
It was argued that providing due protection to state institutions in law was necessary.
However, enough safety valves had been ensured so that the law was not misused for oppression.
Some cabinet members cautioned against introducing such a legislation in haste and voiced the apprehension that it would invite a lot of criticism from the civil society and media.
It was contended that in the presence of defamation laws, there was no special need to bring a new legislation, but rather effective implementation of existing ones was required.
It was also argued that if certain State institutions were to be protected, then parliament and other public office holders also deserved similar shelter.
They recommended further debate to develop a consensus before going through with the legislation.
Some cabinet members also suggested that an “in-principle approval” of the cabinet might be granted as reservations could be addressed in parliament, while others sought more time for internal discussions.
A few cabinet members also emphasised that freedom of speech was the right of every citizen and was the foundation of democracy.
However, they added that the aspect of hate campaigns against the State institutions on social media could also not be ignored.
Attention was drawn to the tragic helicopter crash because of inclement weather, in which the corps commander Quetta lost his life.
The ensuing allegations and insinuations on social media were repulsive, uncalled for and demoralising for the armed forces.
However, considering that even after a protracted debate the cabinet was still divided, it was suggested that a committee, having representation from all coalition partners, might be formed to further discuss the matter and give its recommendations to the cabinet in its next meeting.
The members endorsed this suggestion.
The Interior Division had said it was well known that a deliberate cyber campaign had been launched by certain quarters for self-serving motives, with the objective of inciting and nurturing hatred against important State institutions and their officials.
Such attacks were focused at undermining the integrity, stability, and independence of the State Institutions, it added.
Unlike others, officials of the armed forces and judiciary did not have the opportunity to step forward and negate the scandalous, derogatory remarks appearing on social media.
The Interior Division, after detailed deliberations with relevant stakeholders, had proposed amendments in the PPC and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
In this connection, a Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023 was prepared.
Given the long-tested legal principle noted in Section 196 of the CrPC, prior approval of the federal government before taking cognisance of the case or registration of the FIR against any person had been made mandatory to avoid misuse of the proposed newly inserted section in the PPC.
The bill had been vetted by the law and justice ministry as per Rules of Business, 1973.
The cabinet considered the summary titled “Approval of the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023” submitted by the Interior Division.
It decided to form a committee to further discuss the matter and present its recommendations to the cabinet.