A draft bill criminalising criticism against the armed forces and the judiciary hit a roadblock on Tuesday as several members of the federal cabinet voiced reservations over it in its current form, seeking to widen its scope by including parliament in it.
Surprising as it may seem, the members of the federal cabinet, while deliberating on the bill -- the Criminal Laws Amendment Bill, 2023 -- proposing a five-year jail term and fine of Rs1 million for intentionally ridiculing or scandalising the judiciary and the armed forces suggested that parliament should also be added to the bill.
Sources revealed that several members of the cabinet expressed difference of opinion and sought parliament’s inclusion in the list of ‘sacred institutions’, arguing why criticism against the prime minister or his office and the supreme legislative forum shouldn’t be included in the category.
They said that the list of the institutions being shielded against scandalous campaigns through any medium got the new entrant in the cabinet meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, as cabinet members expressed reservations on the bill, proposing that it should be reviewed.
Subsequently, the official handout stated, the federal cabinet constituted a cabinet committee to review the government-prepared bill with direction to submit its report in the next cabinet meeting.
It said Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, Minister for Law and Justice Azam Nazir Tarar, Minister for Economic Affairs Sardar Ayaz Sadiq and representatives of all coalition parties in the federal cabinet will be included in the committee.
A key minister of the PML-N told The Express Tribune that “across-the-board reservations” were expressed on the bill instead of it being opposed by any particular party, adding that the cabinet members wanted to ensure that there were enough “safeguards” and minimum chances of misusing it.
“It’s a sensitive issue and we want to ensure that no one misuses it once it becomes a law,” the minister said, pointing out that this had been an issue that laws were made to give protection but then they were misused.
To a question if cabinet members also chided the ruling party over its slogan of “vote of izzat do”, he said that nothing of that sort took place in the meeting.
The summary seeking approval for the bill states that the country has witnessed a spate of scandalous, derogatory and vicious attacks on certain institutions of the state, including the judiciary and the armed forces and the officers thereof.
It is well-known that a deliberate cyber campaign has been launched by certain wings for self-serving motives, with objectives of inciting and nurturing hatred against important state institutions and their officials, adding that such attacks are focused on undermining the integrity, stability and independence of the state institutions.
Though the armed forces and judiciary usually convey the desired messages to media and rebut, when required, through official channels, the summary states that punishment was being proposed as the institutes can’t counter negative remarks.
“Unlike others, officials from judiciary and armed forces do not have the opportunity to step forward and negate scandalous/derogatory remarks while appearing on media,” the summary reads. “The Interior Division, after detailed deliberation with relevant stakeholders, has proposed amendments in the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (CrPC) and in this regard, Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023 has been prepared.”
Given the long-tested legal principal noted in Section 196 (Prosecution for Offences against the State) of the CrPC, it maintained, prior approval of the federal government before taking cognisance of the case or registration of the FIR against any person has been made mandatory to avoid misuse of the proposed newly inserted section in the PPC, 1860.
The summary states that the bill has been vetted by the Ministry of Law & Justice as per Rules of Business, 1973, and accordingly the cabinet is requested to approve the bill.
It adds that the interior minister has approved and authorised the submission of the summary.
The bill states that a new section shall be inserted after Section 500 (Punishment for Defamation) of PPC. The proposed Section 500A (Intentional Ridiculing or Scandalising of the State Institution etc) states: “Whoever makes, publishes, circulates any statement or disseminates information, through any medium, with an intention to ridicule, or scandalise judiciary or the armed forces of Pakistan or member thereof, as the case may be, shall be guilty of an offence punishable with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine which may extend to one million rupees, or both.”
The explanation adds that “it shall not be an offence within the meaning of this section, if such statement or information is true”. Also, an amendment has been proposed in CrPC of 1898, which states that in Section 196, after the expression of Section 295A, the expression ‘Section 500A’ shall be inserted.
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