Civil society is working to ensure free expression concerns are on the table.
The first examination of Pakistan by the UN Human Rights Committee will take place on 11 and 12 July 2017, in Geneva. The Committee, which consists of 18 independent experts, is mandated to oversee the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Pakistan ratified the ICCPR in 2010, and as such is bound to respect it.
In anticipation of the meeting, individuals and NGOs have been expressing serious concerns regarding the human rights situation in Pakistan, and some have made explicit recommendations aimed at strengthening respect for the civil and political rights of Pakistani citizens, especially with regard to freedom of expression.
Chilling blasphemy laws, rampant impunity that compromises the safety of journalists in the country, censorship of films and online abuse of women in the media all prevail in the country, supported by a constitutional and legal framework that does not align with human rights standards and best practices.
The Committee has already highlighted in its List of Issues (shared with Pakistan prior to the meeting) its concerns about increasing control of telecommunications by the State and several Pakistani agencies, such as the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), as well as the censorship of television programs and websites.
It has also asked Pakistan to explain the legislative steps it has taken to combat its dismal record of impunity; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index, Pakistan consistently ranks in the top 10 when it comes to failing to solve cases of journalists murdered in the course of their work.
In response, Pakistan has claimed that freedom of expression is protected through article 19 of its Constitution, and defends the broad restrictions it places on that right, claiming that defamatory or other statements that do not comply with the standards of decency, such as incitement to violence, terrorism, pornography or hate speech, are acceptable limitations.
Some non-governmental organizations, local and international, have submitted alternative reports to the Committee in order to supplement — and in some cases call into question —the State’s version of its record, and give the experts further information to analyze the situation.
A report submitted to the Committee by the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), in collaboration with IFEX, the global network defending and promoting the right to freedom of expression and information, and RIDH, the International Network of Human Rights, argues that there has been a clear deterioration of freedom of expression online, and highlights disturbing issues concerning the safety of journalists and the problem of impunity.
They note that, as of January 2016, 84,000 websites which the Government claimed had objectionable content were blocked. And with respect to impunity and journalist safety, 73 journalists have been killed during the course of their work since 2002, but there have been only 5 convictions in cases of murdered journalists.
Their report also highlights the problem of censorship in Pakistan, often implemented on the basis of vaguely worded concepts accepted as limitations to freedom of speech in the country.
A delegation from IFEX will visit Geneva from 9 to 14 July 2017 to participate in discussions with the Committee and ensure that its concerns are heard during Pakistan’s examination, along with those of other civil society representatives.
The Human Rights Committee will then publish its recommendations for Pakistan at the close of its 120th session, which ends on 28 July 2017.
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”- article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights