New Delhi: “Sedition was designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, 54, quoted Mahatma Gandhi as he spoke to Article 14 and referred to the 150-year-old law used by both countries to stifle dissent.
As in India, where the Supreme Court clarified 60 years ago that section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, could only be used if there was incitement to violence, Pakistani courts have also warned about the misuse of section 124A of Pakistan Penal Code, 1860.
In 1954, the Pakistani courts said sedition should be applied only to “that degree of disaffection, hatred or contempt which induces people to refuse to recognise the government at all and leads them to unconstitutional methods…” In practice, authorities in both countries ignore court guidelines while using the law to go after dissenting voices: opposition politicians, human rights defenders, students, civil society leaders and journalists. This misuse comes at a time when Reporters Without Borders, a journalism think tank, on 2 July 2021, listed the prime ministers of both countries, Narendra Modi and Imran Khan, as two of 37 global “predators of press freedom”.
One of those against whom sedition law has been misused in Pakistan is Mir, who on 15 June 2021 wrote in The Washington Post how the government was weaponizing sedition law as “part of a well-organized war on dissent”.
“It is deliberately vague, and broad terms enable its abuse. You can be charged with sedition for merely “liking” a Facebook post, for drawing a cartoon or for making a speech,” he wrote. Mir wrote the article in response to the attack on journalist Asad Ali Toor on 25 May 2021 by three armed men who broke into his home. Many suspected they were from Pakistan’s security agencies, and the attack triggered widespread criticism (here and here), including public protests by journalists.
At one such protest, Mir warned the security establishment that journalists would expose them before the people by sharing “the stories that emerge from inside your homes” if the state did not stop such attacks on the press. “We will tell them whose wife shot whom inside the confines of their home. And which ‘General Rani’ was behind this. I hope you all have understood what I am saying,” he said. Shortly after his speech, Mir was replaced as the anchor of Capital Talk, a flagship programme that he had anchored for years on Geo TV, the country’s most prominent TV station. His column in Daily Jang, a leading Urdu daily, was abruptly ended.
Applications were moved before Lahore High Court demanding sedition and treason charges against Mir. In Gujranwala, another application seeking treason wrongly accused Mir of mentioning the Chief of Pakistan Army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa in his speech. The applicant later acknowledged he might have “erred a bit” in his petition.
A cursory glimpse into the history of sedition law in Pakistan reflects a similar picture. Famous poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib have been tried under this law on charges of treason and conspiracy. A K Fazlul Haq, who presented the Pakistan resolution on 23 March 1940 as Prime Minister of United Bengal also faced sedition charges. Three former prime ministers and a president—PM Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy, former PM Benazir Bhutto, PM Nawaz Sharif and President Asif Ali Zardar—have been accused of sedition.
In India, Article 14’s sedition database has revealed that since 2010, 11,000 people in India have been booked in 816 cases under sedition law. Of these 65 % were implicated since 2014, when Modi assumed power. Many were booked merely for making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against governments or politicians: 96% of such cases were filed after 2014. Even as the Modi government filed 25 sedition cases against 3,700 people for participating in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, the Pakistani government charged hundreds of people with sedition for holding a protest march.
As the threat of a sedition case looms over Mir, he is advocating the revocation of the law and criticising Khan’s government for blocking attempts to repeal it.
Khan claimed that the Pakistani media were more free than the British media but in May 2021 his government proposed a new law to establish a Pakistan Media Development Authority, which Mir said “would enforce total silence in Pakistani media” as tribunals would be established to “decide what can and cannot be said or written, without notice or a hearing”.
Offenders would be punished by up to three years in prison and millions of rupees in fines. “This law,” said Mir, “Would enforce total silence in Pakistani media.” Excerpts from an email interview with Mir:
We frequently read reports of censorship and attacks against the media and journalists in Pakistan. You have been banned by your employer from hosting your show. You wrote in The Guardian that you did not blame them and have offered to apologise for the remarks you made at a protest and which led to the ban. Give us your sense of the ongoing situation.
We are losing our freedom very fast. I am a living example of censorship in Pakistan. I have been a journalist for more than 30 years. Now I can't write in any Pakistani newspapers and I was also stopped from hosting my show on Geo News just because I made a speech outside National Press Club Islamabad on 28 May. I condemned an attack on journalist Asad Ali Toor in a very harsh tone and for a reason. Ten journalists were attacked in Islamabad in May 2021. Most of the victims never reported attacks to police because they think attackers were more powerful than police. Federal Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry in an interview to BBC claimed that some journalists stage drama of attacks on them just for getting asylum outside Pakistan. These remarks were painful for me because I survived many assassination attempts in Pakistan but I never ran away from Pakistan like General Pervez Musharraf. My speech was not reported by any Pakistani TV channel or any newspaper. It was only viral on social media. Next day I was asked by the management of Geo News to clarify my position. I refused because I never said anything on Geo News.They said we are sending you on leave. Daily Jang also stopped my column and a campaign against me was started by some self-claimed lovers of the Pakistan Army on social media and on some TV channels. Some applications were filed against me to register sedition cases in different cities. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) decided to defend me. They prepared a statement in which I apologized for any inconvenience due to my tone. I also said that I respect the Army but I can't remain silent on attacks against journalists. I never changed my position...I am still banned.
The Pakistan government constantly maintains that journalists and media enjoy freedom and there are no curbs. Prime Minister Imran Khan has said Pakistan media is freer than British media. How would you respond to such claims?
His claim is a joke. When he became PM in 2018, Pakistan ranked number 139 in World Press Freedom Index.Today Pakistan ranked at 145. All international human rights groups are crying against censorship in Pakistan.The whole world knows what's happening to us but our PM is not aware. I feel pity for him. Maybe he is helpless.
You have survived a bomb under you car, an assassination attempt, face regular trolling, had your column stopped and now your TV station has banned you from doing your show. Has the situation worsened?
I lost my job for the first time in 1994 due to a column about the submarine scandal. Late Benazir Bhutto was PM. She called me and clarified that she is not responsible for my termination from Daily Jang. She offered me a government job but I rejected it. I was forced to resign from the position of Editor Daily Pakistan in 1997 by the then PM Nawaz Sharif. Then I was banned on TV by General Pervez Musharraf in 2007 but Daily Jang never stopped my columns.
There was no threat to life till 2012 when a bomb was planted under my car. In the last one decade I have survived assassination attempts, faced fake murder and kidnapping charges and also faced a blasphemy charge over a column written against honour killing.
The situation is getting worse. Musharraf banned me only on TV, not in the newspaper. Now my friend Imran Khan is PM and I am banned from TV as well as in newspapers. I must say thanks to my enemy Musharraf because he never banned me in the newspaper.
Your critics accuse you of being partisan in your reporting and commentary on Paksitani politics. How would you respond to them?
If I am partisan then why did Imran Khan call me as a witness in the inquiry commission against rigging in the 2013 elections? I told you I lost jobs when Bhutto and Sharif were in power, I was banned when Musharraf was in power and I am banned when Imran Khan is now in power. I believe in objectivity not neutrality.
A journalist in Pakistan cannot remain neutral between democracy and dictatorship. We have to stand by democracy. We cannot remain neutral between law and lawlessness. If someone is breaking the law and attacking journalists we have to criticise him. We can't remain silent in the name of national interest or neutrality.
Some observers say Pakistani media is more critical of the state than Indian media. How much would you agree with this assessment and what role do you think the media plays in nation building?
There are many similarities and there are differences between the situation in India and Pakistan. Modi and Imran Khan were the beneficiaries of free media when they were in opposition. Now the media is under pressure when they are in power. Pakistani journalists are more aggressive because we have faced four dictatorships. Journalists were part of the movements for the restoration of democracy. Our current secretary general of PFUJ Nasir Zaidi was flogged by General Zia in 1978. He is a source of inspiration for young journalists. We still respect him due to his struggle for democracy.
India faced only one emergency and the late Kuldeep Nayyer once told me that when he was arrested the Indian journalist community never stood by him. Pakistan is different. Here the majority of my colleagues and human rights bodies are standing with me and want to fight for me. The general public is showing solidarity with me. Wherever I go people start selfies and they show anger against Imran Khan and security agencies. It's a matter of pride as well as a matter of great concern.
Other than curbs and threats by state, what are the other challenges for journalists and media in Pakistan?
More than 8,000 journalists lost jobs in Pakistan in the last five years due to the economic crunch. We need to think about our economic models as well as professional competence. Good journalism is good business. If you will open a TV channel or newspaper to protect your business interest then you will destroy journalism. We need to get rid of non-professionals.
India and Pakistan are free countries now and yet both still carry the colonial legacy of the sedition law—124-A of the penal code—and observers say it is used to crack down on free speech. How would you draw the comparisons between how the two countries deal with dissent?
Look at section 124-A of the penal code in India and Pakistan. It was introduced by the British colonial raj in united India. Now we are divided in three countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. All these three South Asian countries claimed to be democracies but in all 124-A is being used to suppress dissent. British parliament abolished this colonial law in 2009 but we are making laws worse than 124-A. We need to resist the colonial mindset ruling us in the name of democracy.
I am very optimistic. A national lawyers convention on 17 June in Islamabad gave me a lot of hope. Then I was called by the Human Rights Committee of the National Assembly which is headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Asad Ali Toor and many other journalists were also there to tell our painful stories to the committee. Parliamentarians from government and opposition expressed solidarity with us. At least they listened to us. Imran Khan is not listening but someone somewhere is listening to us. I am sure we will defeat colonial mindset like Gandhi and like Muhammad Ali Jinnah did.
Can you give us a picture of the history of how authorities have used sedition law in Pakistan.
Sedition law was used against famous poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib. It was used against A K Fazlul Haq who presented the Pakistan resolution on 23 March 1940 as PM of United Bengal. Sedition law was used against former PMs Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy, Bhutto, Sharif and former President Asid Ali Zardari. These days the same law is being used against many journalists and academics in Pakistan.
You write in your WaPo piece, "And in Pakistan, an attempt to finally rid us of the law was defeated last year by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in Parliament." Can you elaborate? What explains why this government wants sedition law to continue when rights activists say it has no place in a free country?
Last year former Chairman Senate and former minister Senator Raza Rabbani from Pakistan People’s Party tabled a bill in the upper house of the Parliament to get rid of section 124-A. Minister for parliamentary affairs Ali Muhammad Khan of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf opposed that bill. There was no debate in the Parliament after that. Few days later two members of the lower house namely Ali Wazir and Mian Javed Latif were booked under the same law and they were arrested. Mian Javed Latif was released on bail but Ali Wazir is still behind bars. Both were from opposition.
It was proved that the government of Imran Khan is consciously using this colonial law against its political opponents. This law is a sword in the hands of powerful people and they try to use this sword ruthlessly to silence the voices of dissent.
We often get to hear one term 'hybrid regime' which is used to explain the current rule in Pakistan. Why does this term come up when you have a democratically elected government? Since 2009 the country has regularly seen elections. How much has Pakistan's democracy progressed since then and what does the future hold for Pakistan?
According to the Democracy Index compiled by the Economic Intelligence Unit, Pakistan is a hybrid regime and India is included in flawed democracies. Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features in the name of democracy. I am living evidence of a hybrid regime. Wazir is sitting behind bars in a sedition case. He only delivered a speech like me. He is evidence of a hybrid regime. Khawaja Asif and Khurshid Shah are former federal ministers, they are sitting members of parliament thrown in jails but the speaker of national assembly will not issue orders for their participation in assembly proceedings because we are living in a hybrid regime.
Thank God we are not authoritarian regimes but we are moving towards authoritarianism very fast. We need to stop all those who are pushing our countries towards authoritarianism.
(Zafar Aafaq is a journalist based in New Delhi.)