One fails to understand what motivated the National Assembly Standing Committee on Interior to hastily approve a bill to take action against those who supposedly ridicule the armed forces. Even the British rulers who imposed the first Martial Law in Punjab did not feel the need to amend the country’s Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, legislated in 1898, to suppress the critics. Nor did the successive military rulers in Pakistan. What was the urgency that led the government to propose the legislation? Pakistan being a federation, and criminal law a provincial subject, the opinion of the federating units was presumably sought. The KP government is reported to have opposed the provision. The committee should have waited for the advice of the other three provinces on the issue
Article 19 of the Constitution enshrines the citizens’ right to the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the Press. The Article simultaneously makes the freedoms subject to any ‘reasonable restriction’, imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or in relation to contempt of court or incitement to offence. What was the need to have an extra law specifically for the armed forces in the presence of a comprehensive constitutional provision?
The rationale given by the Ministry of Interior which sponsored the move is questionable. It has been maintained that the incidents of defaming the Armed Forces have increased in the country which is demoralizing for them.
The people of Pakistan have great regard for the armed forces, as they guard the country’s borders round the clock throughout the year to provide the citizens security against foreign threats. Who can think of defaming those who sacrifice their lives to safeguard the country’s integrity and freedom? The problem arises when armed forces take up tasks outside the sphere defined for them in the Constitution. Any institution, be it the judiciary, the civil administration or the Army, that transcends its constitutional mandate, is bound to invite criticism. The term ‘defaming’ is subjective. What is fair criticism to one can be termed defaming by another. There is therefore a genuine concern that the change in the law is in fact aimed at victimizing the critics.