Right to express and law of Sedition
In recent times, many activists, journalists, lawyers, students, and other vivacious voices of dissent are facing charges of sedition for criticizing the government and expressing their opinions about social and political issues.
The law of sedition was originally drafted by Thomas Macaulay in 1837, but the same was not inserted in the Indian Penal Code in 1860. After one decade, the same was inserted through Penal Code (Amendment) Act, 1870 to stifle any voices of dissent and to suffocate the resistance movements by the colonial masters to perpetuate their imperial rule. It was one of the many draconian laws brought into force by the colonizers to rule the subjects in the sub-continent.
In the late 19th and early 20th century Indian nationalist leaders, journalists, and activists were implicated under the sedition law. In 1891, Jogendra Chandra Bose, the editor of the newspaper Bangobasi was persecuted under the sedition charges for criticizing the Consent Bill. Maulana Muhammad Ali, Maulana Shoukat Ali, and Shiri Shankaracharya were tried jointly in 1921 at Karachi for sedition. In 1922, Moulana Abdul Kalam Azad’s trial for sedition was conducted when he hurled defiance at the rulers in his speech.
British Masters wanted to suppress the freedom movements, thus they introduced this particular offense, amongst others, which was in extreme isolation of human rights. The law of sedition as contained in section 124-A of Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 is a residue and relic of oppressive colonial legacy.
The British, who introduced the law of sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the same in their country. After acknowledging the value of the right to free speech and expression, the United Kingdom deleted the seditious libel through the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009.
Likewise, Australia following the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) repealed the sedition law on 19.09.2011. New Zeeland repealed it on 7th May 2007. Scotland abolished the offense of sedition on 28.03.2011. Furthermore, in the United States of America, the law of sedition has never been invoked since 1961.
Ironically, the students for demanding their legal rights and journalists/lawyers/activists for raising their voices upon the issues of public importance are implicated under the charges of sedition and public nuisance. On the other, participants of the Faizabad sit-in, which had been declared undemocratic and unconstitutional by the highest constitutional court of the country were benefited with special allowances instead of treating them in accordance with the law.
It has unfortunately been witnessed repeatedly that the law of sedition is being invoked as a tool to persecute political dissent in Pakistan as experienced in the colonial period. A wide and concentrated executive discretion is inbuilt in it which permits its blatant abuse.
The terms like hatred, contempt, and disaffection deployed in section 124-A of the penal law are vague and subject to different interpretations which can be utilized according to the whims and wishes of the ruling elite. Hence, it can potentially be used as an instrument of exploitation to penalize the citizens who have differences of opinion.
The law of sedition should not be used to curb the right to free speech and freedom of expression. It is an illegitimate constraint and restriction on the legitimate, legal and lawful exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights. The abuse of sedition law to persecute its citizens and arbitrarily slapping charges upon them are inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights, democratic values, and Pakistan’s international commitments.
Pakistan is also a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) since 1948 and in 2010 it ratified the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which set forth internationally recognized standards for the protection of freedom of expression under Articles 19 of both the covenants.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right ordained under Article 19 of the Constitution. These rights are essential ingredients of a vibrant democracy. The provisions of section 124A PPC are repugnant to the constitutional guarantees. The law of sedition becomes void being inconsistent with and in derogation of fundamental rights in view of the mandate of Article 8 of the Constitution.
The law should be a tribune of justice and not an instrument of exploitation to subjugate and oppress the citizens. After the creation of Pakistan, the people are enjoying fundamental guarantees under the umbrella of the Constitution and their status has been changed from ‘subjects’ to ‘citizens’, hence, they are entitled to be treated like ‘citizens’ not ‘subjects’.
The writer is an Advocate and Partner at Commons Law Company (CLC). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org