Recently, President Asif Ali Zardari made a strange public statement, one among many of his peculiar gems. In response to the criticism of his visit to Europe, he said that those who were sitting outside the parliament were criticising the government. Suddenly, it seemed that the right to criticise the government of the day had become the exclusive domain of parliamentarians. The rest of us lesser mortals sitting outside the hallowed halls of parliament had lost our fundamental right to question the government’s actions and inactions.
The democratically-elected government is not the only institution that considers itself a sacred cow, above and beyond public criticism. Before this, other institutions of the state have claimed the right to immunity from public scrutiny at the risk of dire consequences for ordinary mortals. In our country, ideology laws forbid the criticism of the armed forces and of state actions, declaring any utterance to be unpatriotic and against ‘national interests’. The possibility that a critique of national institutions may be based on a very strong patriotic impulse is not even entertained.
The fear of criticising the judiciary, or any of its verdicts, arises from the potential for contempt of court. In other countries, the contempt of court notion has been overtaken by ideas based on freedom of speech and expression. Judicial verdicts can be freely debated, discussed and even criticised for not being based on justice or the spirit of the law. However, in our country we question judicial verdicts in quiet whispers and muted murmurs.
Religious parties and organisations equate their criticism with rejection of Islam. Anyone who dares to challenge religious parties or organisations is accused of rejecting the injunctions of religion and being an apostate. Such a person can potentially be declared a blasphemer and subjected to the most draconian laws passed in Pakistan. Even a well-reasoned, intellectual and sound critique of a particularly virulent interpretation is perceived as an attack on Islam, thus silencing all debate and alternative thought.
So, if we challenge the state or exclusivist nationalism, we are unpatriotic; if we challenge the domination of religious cliques, we are infidels liable to death; if we question the motives of the armed forces, we are anti-national traitors; if we raise issues with judicial verdicts, we are renegades from the rule of law; if we take the government to task for its failures, we are undemocratic and our commitment to democracy comes into serious question! So we must maintain a painful silence amid the wreckage of our country over which our rulers of all shades and hues dance.
There is a problem in the very manner in which Freedom of Speech is defined in Article 19 of our constitution: “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.”
With so many exceptions laid out in the very granting of a fundamental right, it seems that what is given with one hand is taken away by the other. If we want this valuable freedom, currently under siege with the blocking of TV channels, then we must change the wording of Article 19 that affords protection to too many holy cows.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2010.
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