April 8th, 2021
By Hamid Riaz & Hassan Raza
On Wednesday, April 7, the National Assembly’s (NA) Committee on Interior passed an amendment to section 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) which legitimizes strict action against citizens who intentionally ridicule the Armed Forces of Pakistan. The amendment proposes imprisonment of up to two years and a fine which may extend to rupees five lakhs against those found guilty of such acts.
“The law is not directed against you and me, so normal citizens need not be afraid. Instead the amendment is targeted towards people who are intent on using (foul) language against the armed forces of our country,” says Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) MNA Amjad Ali Khan, who tabled the amendment as a private member’s bill. According to Mr. Khan, the Criminal Amendment Bill 2020 is needed to protect the honor of the armed forces of the country.
When asked about the sudden necessity of such legislation, he stated that “After 9/11, such laws were introduced across the world. I understand that a ‘defamation law’ already exists but that law is directed towards individuals while my amendment deals with the defamation of our institutions.”
This reasoning has been rejected by legal experts.
“The word ‘person’ as it is stated in section 500 does not refer to a single individual. The legal definition of the term ‘person’ includes cooperatives or a body of persons,” explains a senior lawyer of the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, a law firm founded by leading human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir. Simply put, section 500 of the PPC already deals with the defamation of institutions or groups of people, hence the claim that the proposed section 500-A was needed to protect an institution from defamation is ill-informed.
Despite it being unnecessary, the bill passed through the NA’s Committee on Interior by a majority of 5-4 vote, though this was not the case initially as the bill faced rejection from a majority of the members in the committee present at the time.
“At first there were only seven of us who deliberated on the bill. Four voted against the bill while three voted for. But afterwards PTI MNA Sher Akbar Khan who opposed the bill and had abstained from voting on it had a sudden change of heart and voted in favour as a matter of party policy. Even then there were four votes for and four votes against the proposed amendment so the Chairman of the Committee broke from the norm (it is pertinent to note that Committee Chairs normally do not vote) and cast his vote as well. Because of these additional votes, the bill passed,” explained a member of the committee on the condition of anonymity.
The bill was sent to the governments of all four of provinces for suggestions – three did not bother to respond while the PTI’s own government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) raised objections against the law, calling it unnecessary and even unconstitutional.
Members of the opposition and the civil society have raised serious concerns about the law and have called it an attack on the freedom of speech of citizens, which is guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973.
Khushdil Khan, Vice-Chair of the Pakistan Bar Council, issued a press release against the law today (April 8) in which he termed it a tool for victimisation of political opponents.
Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) MNA Agha Rafiullah, who voted against the amendment in the Committee, reiterated Khudil Khan’s remarks and termed the amendment an attack on the civil liberties of citizens.
“The interesting bit is that when we asked the institution if they were willing to come to the National Assembly to testify on the necessity of the bill, they refused. So, in effect, even the people this bill claims to protect are not interested in it. I think this bill is nothing but a publicity stunt by an incompetent government at the expense of the armed forces of our country,” explains Rafiullah.