Pakistan - March 2023
High court strikes down sedition law stifling free speech
A high court in Lahore on 30 March struck down a colonial-era sedition law that criminalises criticism of the federal and provincial government, citing that it is “inconsistent” with the Constitution. The decision has been lauded by free speech advocates, who remain hopeful the ruling will apply across the country unless overturned by the Supreme Court. The controversial sedition law has in recent years been used by successive governments to silence political opponents and journalists. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will uphold or take up the lower court ruling.
Violent clashes amongst opposition supporters and police
Human rights experts have denounced recent police brutality against supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who have been protesting attempts to arrest Khan. Protesters were allegedly dispersed using tear gas and batons, as well as detained under counter-terrorism laws. The violent clashes resulted in numerous members of Khan’s political party, Tehrik-I-Insaaf (PTI), being charged with terrorism-related offences following a confrontation outside an Islamabad courthouse on 18 March – although similar protests had been occurring for weeks without warranting similar charges. Police have been urged to respect the right to peaceful assembly, while all sides are being called on to exercise restraint. Similarly, a blanket ban issued on 8 March on all demonstrations in Lahore to suppress the protests, including the “Aurat” International Women’s Day March, has been roundly condemned as being overly broad and infringing on the right to peaceful assembly.
High court suspends ban on free speech
On 9 March, The Lahore High Court suspended the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA) decision to ban all television channels from broadcasting speeches and press events by former Prime Minister Imran Khan. PEMRA’s ban was imposed on 5 March, with Khan accused of attacking state institutions and promoting hate speech. PEMRA’s decision marked the third time a ban had been imposed and then withdrawn on broadcasting Khan’s speeches. Rights organizations decried the move as infringing on the right to freedom of expression, with Amnesty International further noting that it is part of a larger trend where politically motivated media bans have become increasingly common.