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Democracy Dies in Darkness

Promulgation of ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Amendment Ordinance’ is aimed at silencing media and those exposing government policies.

Freedom of pen and lips guaranteed by the constitution of the country, can’t be and should not be snatched through coercive measures introduced in the PECA.

Nazeer Ahmed Arijo

There is no second opinion that democracy dies in darkness. Yet, those at the helm of country’s affairs are making coercive measures in order to strangulate independent voice exposing bad governance and poor public service delivery.                                  Despite defamation and fake news laws in place, the President Arif Alvi promulgated The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Amendment (PECA). The PECA has produced unprecedented discontentment as it has not only made online defamation a non-bail-able, cognizable offence, but also broadened the ambit of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) giving it sweeping powers to arrest those allegedly involved in defaming individuals and institutions.

After the enactment of the said ordinance, any person or institution, not necessarily, the aggrieved person, could file a defamation case.

Under Article 89 of the Constitution, the President has power to promulgate Ordinances only if the Senate or National Assembly is not in session and the President is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action. This clearly suggests the President, under certain pressing circumstances, is vested with authority of issuing an ordinance. If one looks around the situation in the country, fortunately, was peaceful. And the parliamentary sessions are routinely held. Ask a layman if there was any urgency for such a law, he would reply in negative. One wonders whether or not the president used his mind independently – a constitutional commitment, before sealing his stamp on the ordinance.

Whatever the case, it goes without saying that the enactment of the Ordinance is seen as a noose to be tightened on the necks of dissenters in order to strangulate their voice, and a tool to clip the wings of critics and muzzle social media activists.

Given the ordinance being oppressive, across the sections of the society have conveyed their concerns in no uncertain terms while terming it manipulative to silence media and those exposing government policies unleashing tsunami of inflation and sophisticated dictatorship called authoritarianism.

Various bar associations including the Supreme Court Bar, Sindh Bar, Balochistan Bar Associations, PFUJ, APNS, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), have unanimously rejected the law in question.

The statement issued by the Supreme Court Bar Association said, “Under the guise of PECA Ordinance, the ruling elite has once again launched a vicious agenda to cut-throat its political opponents and to silence all those who believe in freedom of speech, opinion and expression so as to hide its failure.”

The ordinance is a “classic example of the authoritarian mindset and a reflection of extremism”, said the SCBA, adding, “The country has not seen such oppressive restriction even in the worst dictatorships”.

Mainstream opposition parties PPP and PML N have called the Amendment being discussed as’ draconian, and encroachment upon the parliament. Former Senate chairman Mian Raza Rabbani convincingly commented on the promulgation having -said that “the amendments to the electronic crimes law amount to denying a national debate and depriving Parliament of its constitutional right to legislate.” Parliament has been made redundant as it has two main functions legislation and parliamentary oversight virtually that do not exist. “Law making has been replaced by rule of ordinances or by bulldozing of laws. “Here a question that arises is: what was the reason behind this hasty law? The answer is that the incumbent government was under stress following stiff scrutiny offered by  electronic, print and social media  on various government policies and its poor public service delivery .These forums keep reminding the PM his earlier stance [when he was the opposition] with regard to rising prices of petrol and the raising of tariff in utility bills. It is pertinent to mention here the PTI Chief used to dub hike in energy prices and inflated rates in utility bills as corruption of those in government, resulting in inflation caused by taxes levied. Besides, the PTI government was feeling the heat of social media material loaded with toxicity directed against some of those in power corridors. Again a logical question that arises is: Who weaved vilification campaign against the opposition into Pakistani political fabric? Who dubbed the opposition politicians with adjectives like the ‘dacoits, thieves, corruption mafia etc.? Who came up with odd comparison like the” Biloo Rani, Raaj Kumari”? The say” if you dig a hole for others, you are sure to fall in it yourself. “However, this does not give a license to the government to impose media blackout in the country. About the role of social media, in my previous write-up titled “Sexual crimes against female students in Pakistan is jeopardizing girls’ education” i wrote, “There is no denying that social media has emerged as a powerful tool against poor governance and other ills. If various matters of public interest were not presented on social media, they would remain out of administrative and institutional scrutiny. “Reducing the role of social media is no-brainer! Ensure good governance and deliver to voters trapped in the tsunami of price hike. Apparently, the PECA, and the controversial ordinance amending the Elections Act to allowing public office holders, including ministers, to take part in the campaigns of electoral candidates, are a product of anger emanating from Ahsan Baig and ECP barring Federal Minister Ali Amin Gandapur episode. On February 4, Ali Amin was expelled from Dera Ismail Khan for violating the code of conduct and running his brother’s political campaign. The ECP had also disqualified his brother for violating the same.

If minsters are allowed to run election campaigns, they will use government machinery and resources at their disposal; thus those not in power will be at disadvantage. PPP senator Sherry Rehman rightly remarked that the government had” prorogued parliament to pass a slew of presidential ordinances which would give their ministers the unprecedented ability to misuse state resources for campaigning for elections while in office”. During elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is duty bound to ensuring free and fair elections. It thus demanding it to create level playing field for all contestants in the country. This is the reason why, the Election Commission of Pakistan is not on the same page with the government with regard to the Amendment in Election code of conduct. Section 181 of the Elections Act prohibits such a participation: No government functionary or elected representative including local government functionary or elected representative, shall announce any development scheme for a constituency after the announcement of the Election Program of that Constituency.

Let us not forget that this government had directed its guns against ECP following its objections over use of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM).

What the parliamentarians on both sides need to realize is that if the parliament were not respected in terms of using its floor for formulating policies, then they would never achieve much needed parliamentary supremacy i.e. civilian supremacy.

If they sidelined the parliament like this, they would be more vulnerable. The long-standing politicians’ desire of achieving dignity among nations and the voters will remain a pipedream if elected representatives fail to regain their lost glory through parliamentary forum. The problem of elected representatives is that they never apply their mind independently .The elected representatives are dictated by party dictators when it comes to voting in the parliament. The treasury benches and those sitting on the other side have joined hands in terms of undermining the parliament. The parliamentary forum is used only for political point-scoring and washing dirty linen there. The parliamentarians have tarnished the image of the Parliament through their words and actions: unparliamentarily language used on the floor, and their utter failure to deliver to their voters respectively. Today, this forum is being considered irrelevant by the masses because of parliamentarians’ utter failure to address economic issues faced by the vast majority, and to end institutional dysfunction. This house is seen as utterly indifferent to the urgent needs of voters. The people of Pakistan need a political framework which is pro-people, and it is powerful enough to restrain state institutions to their respective domains _ a core of parliamentary democracy. We hear the alleged sale and purchase of senators’ seats during their election in the upper house. And who can deny engineered absenteeism of elected representatives during the passage of certain bills? As a result, certain bills got through the parliament despite the opposition having majority in the senate. Publicly; the opposition was not in favor of SBP law, however, with certain senators not present on the day, allowed the government to pass the bill. Such chest beating on bills in public and allowing its passage by strategic absence is nothing but political hypocrisy as well as pulling wool over the eyes of public. Political bribery in every context is detrimental to democracy. Federal Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhry recently has accused that some of their MNAs have been offered bribery –not to mention to purchase their favor for vote of no-confidence against the PM. Making no-trust move be made successful with parliamentary debate while highlighting the supposed failure of the PM in terms of serving the masses consequently losing the trust of the house. With clouds of no- confidence hovering over Islamabad, the PM Imran Khan has given the task of winning over disgruntled Members of Parliament to the CM Punjab, Balochistan and KP respectively. Those dissatisfied members will be won through the give-and –take. Means and methods applied in this political arrangements are known to everyone. The Islamabad High court has asked the relevant authorities not to arrest people under Section 20 of PECA .Both bar and media bodies have challenged the recently promulgated Presidential Ordinance in courts .It is likely that the new law will be turned down.

Speaking truth to power is the prime responsibility of media and opinion-makers as well as anchors. Democracy dies in darkness. Only fascists need media blackout for the cover-up of crimes committed in order to prolong their power. Hence, instead of targeting media and independent minds, the PTI led government should improve its image in terms of public service delivery and electoral promises made during its electioneering. Having said that, media both electronic and print and writers and anchors must be waking up to the fact that there is a public perception that, this channel is pro this or that party/government; likewise some anchor persons and writers are seen as pro-heavy weight politicians. This public perception has deepened in recent years. It thus questions the credibility of media and those associated with it. Whether one likes it or not, there are some beneficiaries of political, and institutional patronage. Because of these favorites, the image of whole house of media remains tarnished. Course _correction in the ranks of media with regard to alleged media management for powerful political clans, and narrow-minded lens used for less powerful is need of the hour. Let such compromising characters be left out in the cold .However, this does not give license to individuals and the government to paint all with the same brush, and make extra constitutional exercise to gag vibrant media and independent voices.

While commenting on the  promulgated ordinances, Dr. Osama Siddique, a leading legal academic who taught law at Harvard University, said: “It appears that the government is both very keen to ensure it uses its control over state machinery to its maximum advantage and anxious to clamp down on any critique and dissent. This is very short-term and self-serving thinking that is oblivious to how such hasty legislation will be liable to future misuse and chill free speech. “He said the government should think about what is good for larger politics and also when they will have to sit in opposition. “Angry politicians make bad laws”.

Information Technology Minister Aminul Haque has come forward against the controversial PECA Ordinance promulgated by his own government, writing a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking withdrawal of the amendments.

Freedom of pen and lips guaranteed by the constitution of the country, can’t be and should not be snatched through coercive measures introduced in the PECA. According Franklin D. Roosevelt, freedom of conscience, of education, of speech, of assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the ever be successfully challenged.             The concerns have been convincingly conveyed to the quarters concerned by the both stakeholders- media, and democratic minds alike. PML N’s petition challenging PECA, was returned by the Islamabad High Court, with the CJ saying that the political party was present in the parliament, it should play its due role to empower the parliament. The Chief Justice Athar Minllah further expressed that stakeholders having no other forum available, had already challenged the Amendment in question which was under hearing. The political parties should not approach the courts for such matters as they have the parliamentary forum for the redressing of such issues.

The power that produces this power called Ordinances needs to be curtailed in order to insulate parliament from presidential acts. This is high time for the debate over ordinances. The parliamentarians should sit down together to carve out a common ground, under which such extra-parliamentary exercise could be exercised.

If parliament is sidelined like this by none other than those entrusted with the responsibility of making legislation on its floor and ensuring parliamentary oversight, what is the use of holding elections and subsequently electing representatives, drawing salary and perks and privileges from taxpayers’ money?

Parliamentarians should shape up or ship out.

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Nazeer Ahmed Arijo- Sindh-CourierNazeer Ahmed Arijo is an educationist and a freelance contributor. He can be reached at nazeerarijo@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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