Rights activists ask state to revisit its regressive policies vis-a-vis civic freedoms
Launching a report on shrinking spaces for the civil society, prominent rights activists on Sunday demanded from the government to ensure the basic freedoms as guaranged in the Constitution of Pakistan and committed under the international commitments.
Academic Dr Riaz Shaikh, rights activists advocate Ali Palh and Zulfiqar Shah and researcher Zeenia Shaukat shared at a press conference at Karachi Press Club the content of the report titled “Denial of Freedoms and Restrictive Spaces: Challenges for Pakistan’s Civil Society”, which has been prepared by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research.
Speakers said that the report seeks to assess the state of four fundamental freedoms in Pakistan, i.e. the freedoms of speech, information, assembly and association in the light of existing trends and practices.
The report observes deep gaps in access to each of the four rights that are deemed critical to a functioning democracy. These rights are particularly denied to the civil society that is at the forefront of struggles for rights, the activists said.
They expressed concern over the deteriorating state of civic freedoms as was manifested in restrictions on the exercise of basic rights and freedoms by those attached to the civil society of the country.
According to the report, for a healthy and functioning civil society, access to the freedom of expression guarantees free flow of information and open exchange of ideas. This right is restricted by the very definition of the Right to Speech enshrined in the constitution, bringing in restrictions imposed by subjective terms such as “security” or “decency or morality”.
The report further says that the most harrowing aspect of restrictions on the freedom of expression is threat to the lives of journalists. The International Federation of Journalists, describing Pakistan as among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, listed 102 killings of journalists and media workers from 2005 to 2016. There have been merely five convictions in the entire history of the cases of killings of journalists since 2002.
According to the report, restriction on the freedom of expression is further reflected in the narrowing range of media plurality, Internet freedom and artistic freedom. In addition to a regressive The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, Pakistan’s cyber space is riddled with systems violating users’ right and privacy, said the activists, adding that Pakistan ranks as one of the ten worst countries in Internet freedom, it says.
“The freedom of information ensures access to information necessary to comprehend a range of issues related to state’s functions. It is the most potent tool to exercise citizenship.
“Though the freedom of information legislation has been enacted by the federal government as well as all four provinces, gaps in definition, exemptions, access and timely delivery of information remain.
“Moreover a range of colonial era laws take away any freedom provided by the FOI legislation. These include the Official Secrets Act, The West Pakistan Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, 1960:The Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, The Pakistan Penal Code: Section 123-A, all essentially allowing state officials to withhold information on the basis of importance for national security.”
The report says that the freedom of assembly — a fundamental right enshrined in Article 16 of the Constitution of Pakistan — is the most violated law and Pakistan’s civil society has been a frequent victim of it.
Civil society activists recounted a list of actions, in the last five years, that were taken against peaceful rallies and demonstrations to highlight rights deficits. These include frequent imposition of Section 144 to suspend peaceful gatherings.
Similarly, they said, the freedom of association remains under restriction directed at political parties, NGOs, student unions and professional bodies by way of regressive laws. Also, they said, public representatives face articles 62 and 63, student unions remain suspended since dictator Zia’s times, and trade unions have been deliberately nipped to the point that there is just one percent unionisation for a workforce of 65 million.
Speakers also spoke about the violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights conventions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights with the way NGOs are being hounded by way of non-consultative laws and mechanisms representative of dictatorial regimes. “NGOs are threatened by state’s security agencies in addition to being frequently targeted by the religious right and criminals. Unfortunately, elements in the state, without making an effort to understand the dynamics, describe rights discourse as a western agenda and NGOs and HRDs as western agents. This further puts the lives of the people attached to this sector at risk.”
Rights activists also condemned enforced disappearances, saying that political, religious and rights advocates had been a particular target of this tactic. The official Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has reported over 1,200 cases. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has documented 400 cases of enforced disappearances since 2014.
Speakers urged the state to revisit its regressive policies vis-a-vis civic freedoms and spaces for the civil society. “The rights to expression, information, assembly and association create a conducive environment necessary for undertaking activities to espouse causes and rights. These are also key to promoting public participation, which in turn is critical for the expansion of a democratic space and rights. These four rights also lie at the basis of civil society’s approach to engaging systems for a pro-rights environment.”