KARACHI: Civil society activists, academic Dr Riaz Shaikh, rights activists Advocate Ali Palh and Zulfiqar Shah, and a researcher, Zeenia Shaukat, on Sunday shared the findings of a report, ‘Denial of Freedoms and Restrictive Spaces: Challenges for Pakistan’s Civil Society,’ at Karachi Press Club (KPC). They expressed concern over the deteriorating state of civic freedoms of the civil society sector of the country.
The report sought to assess the level of civic freedoms of the state using four fundamental indicators for freedoms in Pakistan namely freedom of speech, information, assembly and association in the light of existing trends and practices. The report observed that access to each of these four rights, that are deemed critical for a functioning democracy, was lacking. The report found that the rights of civil society were particularly restricted.
The rights activists said that the most harrowing aspect of restriction on freedom of expression was the threat to the lives of journalists. The International Federation of Journalists describes Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. A total of 102 journalists and media workers have been killed between the years 2005 and 2016 alone and since 2002, there have been merely five convictions of the perpetrators.
The rights activists added that the restriction on freedom of expression was further reflected in the lack of media plurality, internet freedom, and artistic freedom. They said that freedom of assembly, a fundamental right enshrined in Article 16 of the Constitution of Pakistan, was often violated and added that the civil society was its frequent victim. To illustrate this point, civil society activists recounted a list of actions, in the last five years, taken against peaceful rallies and demonstrations. This included the frequent imposition of Section 144 to suspend peaceful gatherings.
Talking about the freedom of association, rights activists also expressed concerned over the ban on student and labour unions. They condemned enforced disappearances and added that political, religious and rights advocates were particular targets of this tactic.
They shared that official commission of inquiry on enforced disappearances reported over 1,200 cases and since 2014, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had documented 400 cases of enforced disappearances. They urged the state to revisit its policies on civic freedoms and spaces for civil society.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2018.