An Important Change

The Lahore High Court’s decision to strike down a colonial-era sedition law must certainly be applauded. Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) criminalised any written or spoken word that “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the federal or provincial government”. The LHC made this law invalid as it contravenes fundamental human rights.

A plain reading of the law indicates that this law was drafted due to the relationship of the colonial state with the local population. The objective here was to control and repress any potential rebellion before it began. In today’s day and age, a law drafted to rule over citizens without the state extending any responsibility to preserving their rights is severely problematic and it is positive to see the LHC take this corrective step.

In a modern state, criticising the government should be treated positively and be used for course correction. The relationship between the citizens and the state cannot be one of subjects and rulers.

However, even though the LHC has taken the positive step of striking this law down, a long road needs to be undertaken before citizens are not punished for actions perceived to be against the state. From speaking out against the government to any institutions, it is clear that Pakistani citizens are still at risk of being marginalised for speaking out against the actions of the state.

The law itself might be a colonial remnant, but successive governments—including the previous PTI and the current PDM governments—have looked to make curbs on the freedom of speech even worse by criminalising speech on social media or making unnecessarily broad definitions of what it means to speak out against the state. The law itself might have been struck down, but those that have protected it and have often infringed upon rights themselves are all relevant political stakeholders.

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