Interior ministry, FIA again told to file replies on social media curbs plea
KARACHI: The Sindh High Court on Thursday once again directed the interior ministry and the Federal Investigation Agency to file their comments on a constitutional petition of civil rights campaigners against the alleged ongoing crackdown on social media activists under the garb of action against those who criticise national security agencies.
Headed by Justice Hasan Azhar Rizvi, a division bench also put the federal government’s law officer on notice and adjourned the hearing to July 6.
Civil rights campaigners Farieha Aziz, Zohra Yusuf, Afia Salam, Ziad Zafar, Ghazi Salahuddin, Nazim Haji, Uzma Noorani, Mahnaz Rahman and Jibran Nasir had moved the SHC against the federal government’s interior ministry and the FIA.
The petitioners, represented by Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, stated that they were aggrieved by the respondents’ attempts “to curb the fundamental right to free speech through, inter alia, unlawful detention and threats to and harassment of individuals”.
They submitted that Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on May 14 ordered the FIA to initiate action against persons running an ‘anti-military’ campaigns on the internet.
“The minister claimed to have taken notice of online criticism against the armed forces following the announcement of the military’s media affairs wing of the withdrawal of a tweet published by the ISPR rejecting the inquiry report from the Prime Minister’s office regarding a news report published by Dawn in January 2017 on alleged differences between the civilian government and armed forces regarding counter-terrorism strategies,” the petitioner said and added: “Since then, the FIA has detained dozens of people involved in what it calls ‘an organised campaign’ against the country’s armed forces on social media.”
The civil rights campaigners told the judges that the respondents had not disclosed the legal basis for the arrest, detention and inquiry of individuals following its crackdown on online dissent.
They said: “Criticism of the armed forces (even if unjustified or misguided) does not amount to a criminal offence under any law and is even otherwise protected under Article 19 of the Constitution”.
The petitioner further said: “The over-enthusiasm of the respondents to curb ordinary citizen’s exercise of free speech is even more troubling when juxtaposed against their complete inaction against actual terrorist groups and proscribed organisations freely engaging in recruitment activities against actual terrorist groups and proscribed organisations freely engaging in terrorist activities and propaganda on various social media.”
They asked the court to declare that the criticism of the armed forces did not, by itself, amount to a criminal offence and could not be subjected to any coercive action by the state.
The petitioners requested the court to declare that Article 19 of the Constitution protected the freedom of expression and the right to criticise any branch of government even if such criticism was unfounded or unwarranted and subject only to the specific exceptions mentioned in Article 19 itself.
The petitioners also pleaded to the court to restrain the respondents from carrying on investigation or inquiry or taking or threatening any coercive action against any persons, including arrest, detention or seizure of property merely on the basis of having criticised the armed forces.
They further asked the court to direct the respondents to provide a complete list of all persons arrested in connection with the campaign against online criticism of the armed forces and the offences, if any, they have been charged with and the action, if any, taken against them.