The outcry as a result of the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) efforts to crackdown on those supposedly indulging in an organised campaign against the armed forces has only emboldened the government, which seems committed on following through on this vigorous, but extremely misguided move to curtail the rights of people online. At a press conference on Tuesday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar stated that the government was not looking to impose restrictions on social media, but wanted some red lines in place – how the two are different is anyone’s guess at this point.

According to the Interior Minister, the country’s social and moral values, alongside its law are under attack, which has prompted the government to take this drastic step. However, for the state to attempt to define what social and moral values a multi-polar society should adhere to is in fact outrageous. In any case, criticism of state institutions is not against the law in most developed nations, and if Pakistan wants to be truly democratic, allowing for criticism of institutions such as the judiciary and the army should be allowed to open space for healthy debate.

One of Pakistan’s biggest problems these days is the shrinking space for discourse and rising intolerance. Self-censorship is a practice journalists and other public figures regularly employ for self-preservation – now the general public must also follow the same route. While previously, the most the public had to fear from speaking its mind was extremists and hard-liners, the masses must now protect themselves from the state as well.

The problem however, with the freedom of speech law in Pakistan is that it has never guaranteed absolute freedom – what we have is freedom of speech within specific limitations. The text of Article 19 of the Pakistani Constitution states, “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 integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.” When the law includes provisions that can be loosely defined – terms such as “reasonable restrictions” are open to interpretation – guaranteeing freedoms and rights becomes much more challenging.

There is a need for reform for proper provision of rights and liberties for the people – just because aspects of the constitution are loosely worded and ambiguous does not allow the government to further its own agenda under the guise of protecting state institutions and following the law. Pakistan must allow for criticism of state institutions and free speech in general, barring hate speech – if no provisions for this exist in the law as of yet, the government must make them.