In a country where free speech is increasingly facing restrictions, a National Assembly panel’s approval of a bill that seeks to criminalise criticism of the armed forces is bound to generate further misgivings. The bill, which has the endorsement of the interior ministry, was introduced by PTI lawmakers as a response to the growing criticism of the armed forces, some members of which have come under public scrutiny for their alleged interference in matters of governance.
There is no doubt that this nation takes immense pride in its armed forces for their courage in defending the country’s borders and recognises the tremendous sacrifices they have made in the war against terrorism. In fact, the successful military operations that eradicated terrorists from northern Pakistan have been especially lauded. However, no one is above criticism, including the senior leadership of our security apparatus — this includes those perceived as going beyond their scope of responsibilities.
Since its inception, the country has seen repeated military interventions, the abrogation or suspension of the Constitution, the dismissal of elected parliaments, and the incarceration of political leaders — actions that have been overseen by the defence establishment. It is also no secret that there are occasions where senior commanders have been perceived as indirectly interfering in civilian matters — a reality which did not escape the army chief himself when intelligence officials held police hostage in Karachi last year. The intelligence apparatus, too, has often been accused of unconstitutional behaviour, such as the enforced disappearance of activists.
Given this reality, the move to bring in such legislation sends the wrong message. It would give cause for some to say that the very goal here is to prevent legitimate criticism by opposition politicians and rights groups that have questioned the role of the army in civilian affairs. It would also give weight to the argument that the present dispensation is a hybrid regime. This bill will criminalise legitimate questions about the military’s alleged interference in civilian matters — questions which in a country like Pakistan are necessary as the fear of derailment of the democratic project is ever-present.
Freedom to question here does not mean that the military’s role in defending the country is being doubted. It simply gives people their constitutional right to question the alleged involvement of an institution of the state in affairs that are beyond its constitutional mandate. In the interest of democracy, parliament must ensure that this bill is either abandoned or rejected.
Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2021