By Triston Giesie

Introductionpakistan flag

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is located in a geopolitically unstable region along the Indus River in South Asia. Pakistani laws and customs heavily follow Islamic standards and are paired with a government that is harsh on criticism. Reporters Without Borders ranks Pakistan 139 out the 179 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, putting Pakistan in the bottom quartile of countries, indicating little freedom of expression. The country has been subject to militarized regimes since its independence was established in 1947, normalizing a culture to an oppressive silence which has only worsened in recent years.


Historical Background

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was established in 1947. However, the story of Pakistan begins in roughly 3,000 BCE with one of the worlds’ first settlements—the Indus Valley Civilization. This Bronze Age civilization blossomed due to its proximity to the Indus River and Mesopotamia. Though archeologists are unsure why the civilization fell, historians know that the region saw constantly power struggles over the next few thousand years. Many tribal kingdoms fought for control in the vacuum that was left by the Indus Valley Civilization’s absence and they eventually fell to numerous Arabic and Indian empires. Next were the Persians, who were conquered by Alexander the Great and his Macedonians, the Turks, the Mongols, the Sikh Empire, before finally succumbing to the British Empire until the 20th Century. The historic precedent of instability would not be lost in modern times, nor would it be during the Pakistani independence movement. It took numerous attempts over 90 years, with most credit due to the All-India Muslim League and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, before Britain finally left the Indian subcontinent and surrounding regions shortly following World War II.

Evident through Jinnah’s words, “Hindus and the Muslims belong to two different religions, philosophies, social customs and literature…. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction,” at a Muslim League Conference in 1940, there was an imminent concern by failing to recognize the tension and violence sprouting between Hindu and Islamic groups. Thus, Britain granted independence to Pakistan and India separately after congressional elections demonstrated a nearly 90 percent loyalty to religiously similar representatives. The British exit left a considerable amount of territory for Pakistan and India to divide independently, simultaneously instigating a mass exodus of up to 14 million refugees seeking heaven in Pakistan or India, what Harold Isaac’s book Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change calls history’s largest mass migration. Kidnappings, riots, and rapes ravaged the evacuees as the first of four major Indo-Pakistani wars waged in pursuit of land and resources, with some sources reporting up to two million victims. Relations between India and Pakistan have remained tense since both of their inceptions.

Pakistan was established as a parliamentary democracy in 1947, dedicated to upholding the teachings of Allah. By 1956, Pakistan had undergone its first military coup d’état and plummeted into martial law. The subsequent actions – ousting of a president, another Indo-Pakistani war and political oppression – led to a civil war and a third war with India before 1972. Soon after, the political control switched parties and the 1973 Constitution, based on British common law, was ratified. This constitution is still in place today and establishes three branches of government consisting of an executive led by a prime minister, bicameral legislature, and a federal judicial system lead by a supreme court as well as a president to act as a head of state. The military overthrew the Pakistani government again four years later, with the commanding General Zia-ul-Haq implementing Sharia law and sanctioning limitation of free expression. Following Zia-ul-Haq’s death in 1988, power has shifted between parties representing the left and right, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League respectively. Pakistan was again overthrown by its own military in 1999 through 2008, making the third successful coup d’état in its history.

Throughout this post-independence era, journalists have been censored, imprisoned, and killed. This is likely because of Pakistan constantly finding itself in a corrupt, politically unstable environment; in addition to the success military coups, there are three known failed attempts to overthrow the government. More so, since Pakistan achieved independence 71 years ago, it has spent roughly 33 years under control of an extreme military government. These circumstances grant few liberties to those who seek to express themselves freely.


Free Speech

            The most apparent evidence of lack of support for the freedom of speech in Pakistan is the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s repetitive legitimization of martial law. Pakistan’s use of martial law seems to have been manipulative in order to systematically suppressed political opposition, limited personal expression, and enable a system of government that is routinely prone to catastrophic instability.

Pakistan’s Constitution of 1973 explicitly defines and protects freedom of speech. However, it does include terminology which may allow exceptions that could almost nullify the right entirely.

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam, or the security or defense of Pakistan of any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or morality, or in relation to the contempt of court, or incitement of an offense.” – Article 19; Freedom of Speech, etc.; Chapter I: Fundamental Rights and Principles, Constitution of Pakistan

The caveat that most clearly exposes the flaw within Article 19 is the phrase ‘subject to any reasonable restrictions.’ It does name exemptions, such as uses which violate state security, incite offenses, and jeopardize foreign relations. However, what it does not do is restrain its own power; by including ‘decency, or morality,’ without clearly stating or elaborating within further amendments what those bounds may be, this statute appears too easily subjective to the will of the government.

Another potentially compromising statement is the “interest of the glory of Islam,” specifically. As a nation that is guided by the Quran and Sunnah, it is not surprising to find this addition within its constitution; however, it would be a misstep to omit a criticism of this particular inclusion—especially in a country governed by Sharia law. As a nation with an established religion, it may inherently limit the freedoms of those who practice other religions or do not practice any. Blasphemy is still a crime in Pakistan, punishable by death. Pakistan: Eye of the storm includes an except that notes of the roughly 650 people charged with blasphemy between 1986 and 2007, over half belong to the minority group of non-Muslims which make up only three percent of the total population.  The narrative of an atheist in Pakistan is explored in BBC’s article Pakistan’s Secret Atheist, which follows a Pakistani atheist who fears for his life due to his personal beliefs. This appears to be more reflective of an oppressive regime.

Exemplifying the lack of true freedom of expression is a 2015 issue involving a man burning Pakistan’s flag, according to Dawn News. Desecration of a flag is a form of protest, demonstrating a discontentment with the body that the flag represents. Though it does not violate any of the expressed points Article 19, Pakistani authorities still arrested Qamarul Zaman for his actions. The comments on the story range from demanding punishment to legitimately questioning the mental health of someone who would commit such an uncommon action. He was charged with burning the flag under Pakistani Penal Code and no other updates have been published.

The Taliban’s success has been, in no small part, due to support by many sovereign governments – including Pakistan. While the Taliban remains an independent entity, there are undoubtedly ties between them and Pakistan, with the Taliban routinely executing the will of the Pakistani government. The book I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban explores this relationship, but it also tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, a teenager who was a vocal supporter of women’s rights. The book recounts her experience when an armed Taliban militant walked onto her school bus and asked, “Who is Malala?” Though she was shot, Malala survived and became an international icon. She also became a chilling reminder to all of Pakistan and the world of the harshly nonconformant nature of Pakistan. Now a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Yousafzai returned to her home country in a visit for the first time since the attack in nearly six years, on March 29, 2018. Much to Pakistan’s credit, she was met with applause and is expected to meet with numerous officials including the prime minister.

Through these examples, it appears that the Pakistani administration has not protected the freedom of speech that its constitution ought to protect. Voices that are in opposition to the government regime report being silenced by force or by fear. The lack of historic cases combating this regime and evidence of domestic Pakistani dissidents before the rise of the internet reflects of a lack of transparency, which may enable corrupt officials.


Freedom of Press

There is also an explicit protection of press within Article 19 as well, but there is an additional implicit protection through an interpretation of the 18th Amendment to the 1973 Constitution, written in 2002.

“Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matter of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” – Article 19A; Freedom of Speech, etc.; Chapter I: Fundamental Rights and Principles, Constitution of Pakistan

Again, the inclusion of the phrase “subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions,” serves only the government. This not only limits the freedom of news organizations to the discretion of the government, it violates the concept of transparency and trust for that governing entity.

Forty years before that excerpt was inserted next to the Article 19, the first military leader to overthrow the standing government issued the Press and Publication Ordinance. The PPO gave power to the government to censor agencies and retract stories that it deemed unhealthy for the development of the Pakistani government. It also restricted who could publish a newspaper to people who had “reasonable educational qualifications,” and “adequate training or experience in journalism,” which was left to the discretion of the government. This eventually lead to the government taking over the largest news outlets and crippling others. Under the military successor Zia-ul-Haq, more severe additions were made which made the publisher legally liable for stories that shed a negative light on the government, regardless of its factuality. It was not until Zia-ul-Haq’s death that any revisions were made that help loosen control on the press.

In 2002, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) was established to “[i]mprove the standards of information, education, and entertainment,” according to its mission statement. It does so through censorship and closing publications that appear to defy the interests of the Pakistani people. Interestingly, PERMA is granted the power to do so through Article 19 and 19A of the constitution, the same articles establish to protect the rights of speech and access to information. It has used this power to silence critical voices both domestically and internationally, blocking BBC broadcast signals while they aired the documentary “Secret Pakistan.” Though Britannica reports that the censorship is widespread, they also claim many Pakistanis are able to obtain nonbiased and uncensored media through the internet and satellite television.

The most toxic effect that these repetitive military administrations have had on the free press has been self-censorship. Many journalists have reported being intimidated during the decades of government arrests and executions, and have not felt comfortable freely expressing and investigating substantive issues. These concerns were not amiss: in 2015 the Committee to Protect Journalists reported three different media officials were all slain within 24 hours. As of April 2018, no arrests have been made in response to the attack. Kim Barker acknowledges this mentality in her book, “The Taliban Struggle: Strange Days in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” describing how citizens and journalists have been reluctant to criticize the government because of the extreme lengths state-supported militant groups would go to silence them. Allowing this disables a freely operated press seems to perpetuate the dangerous system that currently stands.

Today’s biggest concern for the press in Pakistan is the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act of 2016, which bans criticism of the military, judiciary, and Islam. Unanimously adopted by the senate, the act’s broad terminology allows a nearly limitless scope for categorizing content as illegal. It also comes with harsh penalties, Reuters reports, such as a prison sentence of up to seven years. Campaigned as an anti-terrorism security measure, it suggests it will be used to block content that depicts the government and its officials in a negative light and silence unfavorable political ideas.

As of January 2017, Pakistan’s largest satirical publication, Khabaristan Times, was blocked from access by all Pakistani IP addresses. IFEX, formerly known as the Freedom of International Expression Exchange, reported that this ban came without any warning or any evidence cited by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority. Banning a satirical entity may be especially troublesome because it is not intended to be regarded as ‘real’ news, which demonstrates the lack of ability for the Pakistani government to process and accept criticism of any sort. Though it did reporting of typically nonfactual, humorous stories, there is a general merit to satire and its ability to humanize the events going on in the world. By blocking the Khabaristan Times, Pakistan seems to be setting a dark precedent for criticism in the modern era.

Reporters Without Borders has published claims by Taha Siddiqui, a prominent Pakistani reporter, of being ambushed and attacked by multiple gunmen and narrowly escaping death in early 2018. There is evidence to support his claims, such as previous threats from government agencies and additional information from reporters who have experienced similar encounters. Speculation is that it was a military endeavor. If this is true, it may explain the lack of investigation on the issue by the Pakistani government, Siddiqui is still free, but no updates from government officials have been given in response to the incident.


Critical Comparison

The United States is ranked 43 out of 179 countries in quality of freedom of speech and press, some 96 spots higher than Pakistan by Reporters Without Borders. Thought it is not ranked in an exceedingly high spot, the United States prides itself on its constituents’ ability to voice their opinion, concerns, and criticisms. Though there have been recent issues facing the First Amendment, namely the ‘fake news’ crisis and subsequent response to it, it appears that the United States promotes a society that protects freedoms of expression have more clearly defined regulations than Pakistan.

First and foremost is the terminology used in the First Amendment, which covers the unalienable individual liberties of every U.S. citizen.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – “The Constitution of the United States,” First Amendment.

The First Amendment grants freedom of expression to citizens and has laws clearly defining the range which speech may be used, curtailing the things which could infringe on other’s rights to wellbeing such as the usage of fighting words and the incitement of imminent lawless action.

This immediately contrasts Articles 19 and 19 on issues of free speech specifically, the United States has adopted a far more robust protection of individual expression. Whereas the Supreme Court of Pakistan has a consistent track record of justifying martial law, the United States Supreme Court declared President Lincoln’s use of martial law to manipulate the Confederacy unconstitutional. This established a precedent in American jurisprudence of erring to the side of caution with a very conservative usage of martial law in Ex Parte Milligan in 1866. The United States also allows its constituents to practice, or refuse to practice, whatever religion they believe and distinctly prohibits the government from establishing an official religion; Pakistan is firmly rooted in Islam and criminalizes blasphemy, something that is inherently restrictive for those practicing other religions in the country. Though not explicitly outlawed, a Pakistani man was arrested for burning the nation’s flag in 2015, a stark contrast to the expression deemed legal in Texas v. Johnson, a 1989 United States Supreme Court case which invalidated laws prohibiting desecration of the U.S. flag. It would be unfair to ignore the dark past of the United States, which has funded and armed numerous foreign militant groups throughout history. Still, it would be careless to compare that to directly associating with a domestic guerilla entity that is internationally renowned for their terroristic practices as the Taliban like Pakistan did. Since Schenck v. United States famously set the precedent for free speech as anything short of falsely yelling fire in a movie theater. This stood until the imminent lawless action standard was overruled by Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 and refined in Hess v. Indiana in 1973, establishing a more progressive statute than Pakistan’s in 2018.

Free press is recognized as the cornerstone of an effective democracy. The Bill of Rights distinctly included free press in its First Amendment in 1789, whereas Pakistan did not have both freedom of press and right to information in the Constitution of 1973 until the Eighteenth Amendment in 2002, 29 years after the constitution was ratified. Near v. Minnesota is another example of a differentiation between the U.S. and Pakistan; though PERMA granted Pakistan the authority to censor anything it deemed unfavorable, Near v. Minnesota saw the United States Supreme Court uphold that, except for rare cases, censorship is unconstitutional. The United States protects the press publishing their stories, including satire—as seen in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. This distinguishes America from Pakistan yet again, as FERPA recently blocked the Khabaristan Times without any evidence presented. To claim that the United States would attempt to kidnap a journalist or ban criticism of the government would be outlandish, and especially in modern day, would more likely be the subject of conspiracy theorists than journalists and scholars. The freedom of press in the United States appears far more robust and developed than Pakistan’s thanks to strict adherence to the First Amendment. However, the United States did not begin defining the First Amendment with greater clarity until the early 1900s. Much like the attempted abduction of Taha Siddiqui in Early 2018, there is also a historic record of the United States acting against public figures. Namely, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover utilized the bureau to send an intimidating letter to Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to surrender advocating civil rights and commit suicide in 1964. There are still issues with freedom of expression in the U.S., but unlike Pakistan, there is a consistent trend by the judiciary to interpret and define freedoms of those given by the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Perhaps with time to grow and develop, Pakistan will grow to adopt such an expressively progressive system.



            The United States appears to be far better at allowing its constituents to exercise freedoms than Pakistan. There are numerous reasons for this, including the wording and later deliberation those same words of the U.S. Constitution, a more stable government and longer history to establish precedents. Pakistan is too undeveloped to have a solid protection of freedoms, especially with most of its history being dominated by militant forces. Despite sharing much of its government structure with the United States, corruption and lack of tolerance for political dissent disqualify Pakistan from being globally recognized as a country that values freedom of expression.


Works Cited

Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866)

Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)

Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931)

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)

Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105 (1973)

Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

Barker, Kim. The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New York: Anchor Books, 2012. Print.

Isaacs, Harold Robert (1975). Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-44315-0. Print.

Jones, Owen Bennett. Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009. eBook.

Rossum, Ralph A., and G. Alan Tarr. American constitutional law. (49-53, 51) Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013. Print.

Yousafzai, Malala, I Am Malala: the Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. New York, NY :Little, Brown, & Company, 2013. Print.

This essay was last updated April 30, 2018.

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