On March 30 2023, Justice Shahid Karim of the Lahore High Court (LHC) delivered a landmark judgment in Haroon Farooq v Federation of Pakistan. This judgement held that the sedition law laid down in Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 (PPC) is unconstitutional and offends fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan (the Constitution). On these grounds, the LHC struck down Section 124-A of the PPC.
Section 124-A of the PPC states that: ‘’Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Federal or Provincial Government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.’’
A petition was filed in the LHC seeking to strike down Section 124-A of the PPC. The main argument of the petitioners was that the provision is unconstitutional, as it infringes fundamental rights granted to the citizens of Pakistan under Articles 19 (right to freedom of speech and expression) and 19A (right to information) of the Constitution. Therefore, it was argued that Section 124-A is void in view of Article 8 of the Constitution which states: ‘’Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights to be void’’.
Although there is an absence of official data, it has been argued that hundreds of people – including former prime ministers, human rights activists, journalists and students in Pakistan – have been charged with and arrested for sedition for simply speaking against certain government actions or policies. The sedition law laid down in Section 124-A of the PPC was enacted in 1860 during British colonial rule of the Indian sub-continent, and was designed to suppress any opposition to colonial rule. After Pakistan gained independence in 1947, successive governments continued to make use of the impugned sedition law, ostensibly to suppress voices of dissent.
In coming to its judgement, the LHC relied upon the preamble of the Constitution which states that: “…we, the people of Pakistan, [are] dedicated to the preservation of democracy achieved by the unremitting struggle of the people against oppression and tyranny’’. The LHC observed that the preamble is an assertion by the people of Pakistan of their dedication to preserve democracy, which can only be achieved by raising voice against oppression and tyranny. The LHC stated that ‘’these voices cannot be suppressed or stifled by the provisions of section 124-A.’’
Further, the LHC observed that Article 19 of the Constitution grants the right to freedom of speech and expression to each citizen. This Article also states that “…there shall be freedom of the press”. The court observed that the purpose of freedom of the press is to enable democracy to flourish by keeping the citizens informed. Without a free press, citizens will not be able to gather information to make informed decisions or to raise their voices against tyranny, nepotism, corruption.
Moreover, the LHC considered Article 19A of the Constitution, which states: ’’Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance…’’. The Court observed that Article 19 and 19A must be read together, as the right to freedom of speech is incomplete without freedom of the press and that this, in turn, secures the right to access to information in all matters of public importance. The LHC contended that freedom of the press is secured by the Constitution for the benefit of citizens, to strengthen their ability to participate fully and effectively in the democratic process.
As such, the LHC held that: ‘’Section 124-A [of the] PPC is unconstitutional and offends the fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 19 and 19A of the Constitution. Since section 124-A is inconsistent with and in derogation of fundamental rights, it is held to be void as a whole. It is hereby struck down.’’ This verdict is being rightly celebrated across Pakistan. The abolishment of the sedition law will help to enable democracy to flourish in Pakistan, and to realise the principles envisioned by the preamble of the country’s Constitution.
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