Pakistan: Freedom of expression for civil liberties in conflict areas 2013

Author's name: 
Faheem Zafar, Bytes for All Pakistan

Freedom of expression (FoE) is essential for the personal development and dignity of every individual and is vital for the fulfillment of other human rights. It guarantees the right to inform the public and to offer opinions of any kind, to advocate change, to give the minority the opportunity to be heard and to challenge the rise of state tyranny by force of words.

The constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of expression in the country under its Articles 19 and 19A, but this fundamental right is massively curbed by the state authorities and non-state actors using several vague contexts and reasons. As per the observed pattern, each new wave of censorship starts under the pretext of the protection of religious sentiments of Muslims against blasphemy, and takes away banning any alternate discourse in electronic media or newspapers and filtering online access to websites, especially those carrying content reflecting political or ideological dissent.

Therefore, Bytes for All Pakistan organized the Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties forum on November 19 in Islamabad. The main purpose of the forum was to provide an opportunity for activists, journalists and civil society members, especially from the interior and conflict areas, to be engaged in a two way conversation with experts and policy makers.

The forum helped in understanding different dynamics of restricted FoE and how it is affecting other human rights and civil liberties in the country, especially in the conflict zones. It also helped unpack different aspects of the policy and regulatory regime and propose recommendations to the government and policy makers in the light of the government’s international obligations under International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Forty participants were selected after an open call for registration was issued on social media, mailing lists and CSOs networks. The event had a distinct focus on participants from conflict areas especially Balochistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, Southern Punjab and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Participants included human rights defenders, journalists, media professionals, youth leaders, activists and academia. The helped participants understand thedynamics of freedom of expression (or the lack of ) and how it is affecting a wide spectrum of fundamental human rights and civil liberties in the country.

In total, five sessions were conducted, with three plenaries on specific topics and one group work session, to discuss and develop recommendations.

The sessions planned at the forum were on critical issues like “Privacy rights and digital surveillance”, “Freedom of expression and hate speech in Pakistan” and “Freedom of expression & international obligations of the government”. In the last session, panelists and participants got together to engage in an interactive roundtable dialogue, and bind together the thoughts that were discussed throughout the day.

The forum was able to achieve the following outcomes.

  • Engagement with stakeholders in conflict areas on emerging issues around freedom of expression in the country;
  • Better understanding of FoE and perils of digital age;
  • Updated information base on current issues and problems;
  • Recommendations to the policy makers;
  • Development of network for taking the movement forward in a more focused manner
  • Setting up of a foundation stone for development of a larger and more formalized Asia-wide network and movement.

Keeping the lessons from this event in mind, a more focused event called “Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties in Asia” ( is being organized in November 2013 by a collective of the following partner organizations : Bytes for All, Pakistan Instituto Demos, ICT Watch, Global Partners Digital, Association for Progressive Communications and Centre for Internet & Society with local hosts Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

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