By Minerwa Tahir
The Sindh High Court (SHC) issued on Wednesday notices to the federal interior secretary and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on a petition filed by civil society activists against curbs on freedom of speech and unlawful detention and harassment of individuals.
A two-judge bench comprising justices Hasan Azhar Rizvi and Abdul Maalik Gaddi sought replies from the interior ministry and FIA by June 15.
A group of civil society activists, comprising Farieha Aziz, Zohra Yusuf, Afia Salam, Ziad Zafar, Ghazi Salahuddin, Nazim Haji, Uzma Noorani, Mahnaz Rahman and Jibran Nasir filed a petition against the federal government’s interior ministry and FIA, saying that they are 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’.
The petitioners stated that on or around 14 May 2017, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan ordered the FIA to initiate action against persons running ‘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,” they stated. “Since then, the FIA has detained dozens of people involved in what it calls ‘an organized campaign’ against the country’s armed forces on social media.”
The respondents have not disclosed the legal basis for the arrest, detention and inquiry of individuals following its crackdown on online dissent, stated the petitioners, adding that ‘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’.
They further stated that 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 organizations freely engaging in recruitment activities against actual terrorist groups and proscribed organizations freely engaging in terrorist activities and propaganda on various social media’.
They pleaded that the court declare that the criticism of the armed forces does not, by itself, amount to a criminal offence and cannot be subjected to any coercive action by the State. They further pleaded that the court declare that Article 19 of the Constitution protects the freedom of expression and the right to criticize any branch of government even if such criticism is unfounded or unwarranted and subject only to the specific exceptions mentioned in Article 19 itself.
The petitioners pleaded that the court 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 criticized the armed forces.
They also pleaded that the respondents be directed to provide a full 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.
The court directed the respondents to submit replied by June 15.
Two weeks ago, the interior minister said that unbridled freedom cannot be acceptable to any civilized society.
Nisar said 27 social media accounts were identified for posting offensive material and of these six people were interviewed. “We have interviewed six people so far. And this process continues.”
Nisar noted that many offensive comments regarding armed forces have been posted on social media over the last few weeks.
“On one hand, our armed forces and civil forces are sacrificing their lives, on the other hand, they are being ridiculed on social media. So I directed the FIA to take action against elements behind such posts.”