Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry on Thursday said it was an “absolutely ridiculous idea” to criminalise criticism, a day after a National Assembly panel approved a bill that proposes a two-year prison sentence and a hefty fine for those who intentionally ridicule the armed forces.
Though Chaudhry did not directly reference the bill in his tweet, his remarks came in reaction to a tweet by senior journalist Mazhar Abbas who, while apparently commenting on the bill passed by the NA committee, wrote that citizens were free to criticise the parliament, politicians and media but the “rest is national interest”.
“Absolutely ridiculous idea to criminalise criticism; respect is earned, cannot be imposed on people,” Chaudhry wrote.
He said he strongly felt that instead of introducing new laws to quell criticism, the laws dealing with contempt of court “should be repealed”.
Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari later said she fully agreed with Chaudhry.
On Wednesday, the NA Standing Committee on Interior approved the bill to make amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 to take action against those who intentionally ridicule armed forces.
The bill says anyone who is guilty of the said offence could face up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine that may extend to Rs500,000, or both.
The bill, titled Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2020 and introduced by PTI MNA Amjid Ali Khan, was approved by the NA committee during its meeting chaired by MNA Raja Khurram Nawaz.
The bill proposes an amendment to Section 500 of the PPC, which currently states: “Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
The amendment, which will be called Section 500-A, states: “Punishment for intentional ridiculing of the Armed Forces etc. Whosoever intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames the Armed Forces of Pakistan or a member thereof, he shall be guilty of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees, or with both.”
Before approval of the bill, the committee saw strong opposition from PPP lawmaker Agha Rafiullah and PML-N legislator Marriyum Aurangzeb, but the bill was passed with five against four votes when the committee chairman voted for it.
The two opposition members believed there was no need to introduce this bill. Aurganzeb asked the committee chairman to read Article 19 of the Constitution before approving the bill. Committee member Sher Akbar Khan, who belongs to the ruling PTI, also requested the mover to withdraw the bill, but later during the voting process, he voted for it.
A working paper of the Ministry of Interior, which was presented before the committee on the amendment bill, stated that the bill was received on September 21, 2020, from the council section of the interior ministry and was referred the same day to the General Headquarters, Islamabad Capital Territory administration, Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for views/comments.
The working paper said response on the subject was, however, still awaited from relevant stakeholders. It said the KP home department did not endorse the bill stating that its promulgation would create conflict among the existing constitutional and statutory provisions and its misuse could not be overruled. Moreover, the KP government also believed the bill would create discrimination with other law enforcement agencies and public offices, which was against the provision of the Constitution.
It said the ICT administration had endorsed the content of the proposed legislation.
While explaining the ministry’s point of view, the document stated: “The incidents of defaming the armed forces have increased in the country and some disruptive element[s], for furtherance of their political objectives, engage in this undesirable practice which is very defamatory and demoralising for the Armed Forces of Pakistan. Minister of Interior endorses the proposed legislation keeping in view the current situation in the country.”