Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Monday urged Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to “immediately” abandon plans to criminalize criticism of the armed forces and the judiciary, describing it as a “serious threat” to journalistic freedom.
In a statement posted on its website, the global rights watchdog warned that the vague wording of the proposed law could have disastrous consequences ahead of general elections, due later this year. Noting that the law called for five years’ imprisonment for criticizing the Army and the judiciary, it said the draft amendments created a new type of offense under Section 500A: “whoever makes, publishes, circulates any statement or disseminates information, through any medium, with an intention to ridicule, or scandalize the judiciary or the armed forces of Pakistan or member thereof” could be jailed for up to five years or fined Rs. 1 million.
Emphasizing that the proposed amendments also impacted the Code of Criminal Procedure by allowing police to arrest any accused person without a warrant and removing the right of release on bail or as a result of an out-of-court settlement in case of imprisonment, it noted that Pakistan’s law already had various disincentives for defamation. Under the Defamation Ordinance of 2002, it said, plaintiffs could get a court to rule in favor without having to prove they have suffered any specific damage to their interests or reputation. And under sections 499 and 505 of the Penal Code, defining criminal defamation, a “statement conducive to public mischief” is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
“We call on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to immediately abandon this proposed amendment, which poses all kinds of problems,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of the RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “It creates a very vaguely worded offense that gives the police exorbitant administrative powers over journalists and is clearly designed solely to prohibit any form of comment about the armed forces. And furthermore, its timing could not be worse. Absolutely decisive general elections are envisaged in the coming months in Pakistan and the adoption of such an amendment could constitute a serious obstacle to the democratic process,” he added.
Muhammad Aftab Alam, the head of the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development, raised similar concerns. “This current proposal seems to be part of an ongoing campaign to further criminalize defamation and free speech in Pakistan,” he told RSF. “This law, if passed, could have chilling effect on the freedom of expression in general and journalistic freedom in particular,” he added.