If you thought people not replying to your WhatsApp messages and leaving you with blue ticks is a criminal offence, lo and behold, there are people in Pakistan who actually think that making memes should be declared a crime.
It turns out that the Imran Khan government wants intentional ridiculing of the armed forces to be considered a criminal and a punishable offence. It is not yet clear who will define the “intentional” or unintentional in the ridiculing. Will unintentional ridiculing still be a crime? Will ridiculing in sleep be an act of high treason?
In the National Assembly, a lawmaker from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Amjad Ali Khan, tabled the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2020 to amend the Pakistan Penal Code. The bill proposes a jail term and fine for this ‘heinous’ crime. “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 with fine which may extend to five hundred thousand rupees, or with both,” the bill says.
Glad that politicians are off-limits in this touchy bill.
Rules in Naya Pakistan
Several technical questions have arisen from this bill.
One valid question is, what if someone shares the past opinions of Imran Khan on the armed forces before he was the prime minister? Will the PM be punished according to the proposed bill? At least Khan was free to voice his dissent in a country that wasn’t like his Naya Pakistan. There was a time when he could say that no hopes should be pinned on the Pakistani generals because they have no dum if 20,000 people come out to protest on the streets. The generals would pee in their pants, they are so buzdil, Khan had been seen proclaiming in a viral video.
Another time, Imran Khan criticised the army for bombing its own citizens in Balochistan and Waziristan, and not learning lessons from East Pakistan in 1971. In another interview, Khan said that only a well-wisher of the armed forces would criticise its overreach in the political domain and address its various corruption allegations. No one considered any of it a criminal offence, but times have changed now. Yesterday’s well-wisher is today’s traitor.
The proposed bill to muzzle dissent in Pakistan comes at a time when criminal cases are being filed against journalists and activists by the day, censorship is rampant, journalists go missing, and even books are disappearing now. This is what a ‘Smart Martial Law’ looks like!
A free country
While PM Imran Khan can continue to tell the world that Pakistani media is free and there is no intimidation, the reality is dangling in front of us and we are awake even if the PM chooses to sleep. Last week, three journalists were booked for allegedly defaming the military. Bilal Farooqi, a news editor with the Express Tribune, was arrested for his “highly provocative posts” that defamed the army. He was later released. An FIR for sedition was registered against Absar Alam, the former Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority chairman, for using ‘derogatory’ language against the army and the prime minister. Similarly, Asad Ali Toor, a journalist in Islamabad, was booked for social media posts that were considered “negative propaganda against the state”.
In short, doing your job gets you nominated for FIRs. If not that, then your books get confiscated.
Journalist Suhail Warraich’s new book Yeh Company Nahin Chalay Gi (This Company Won’t Run), which is an anthology of his Urdu newspaper Jang and BBC Urdu columns, was seized from bookstores within hours of its release, not because of what was in the book, but because of what was on its cover. A satirical cartoon depicting the politics of Pakistan — Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa sitting on a chair while an infant Imran Khan plays at his feet. Warraich was asked to delete the social media announcements of his book and told that the title was objectionable and offended some. Isn’t that the idea of cartoons in the first place? However, the company had spoken — Yeh Book Nahin Chalay Gi.
As it is, humour is not the strong suit of Imran Khan’s regime. Last year, cartoonist Khalid Hussain was sacked after he drew PM Khan chasing a Kashmir mediation carrot held by US President Donald Trump as he rode with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a cart. Earlier this year, author Mohammed Hanif’s Urdu edition of A Case of Exploding Mangoes went missing when namaloom men seized stock from his Karachi publishers and bookshops in Islamabad and Lahore.
Amid FIRs, censorships, self-censorship, disappearances, bans, let us keep calm and tell ourselves that no matter what, we are freer than the freest media.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.