AJ Foundation says...: Constitution gives ‘absconder’ right to freedom of speech

Our Correspondent
Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021

LAHORE: The Third Asma Jahangir Conference, organised last weekend, had a wide agenda on critical areas of human rights, currently under challenge in the country, said a press release issued here on Sunday.

The event was co-organised by the Asma Jahangir Foundation, Pakistan Bar Council and the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan. There were 21 sessions in total, addressing the following areas: The right to dissent, the Afghan crisis and its Impact, Conflict in Kashmir: bypassing Kashmiris, No justice in justifying: Violence against women, rights of the child, freedom of religion and belief, State of the economy, and challenges to restoring democracy in Pakistan.

According to the press release, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the opposition party PML-N, addressed the closing speech of the conference, keeping in tradition with the events organised by the bar councils, where leaders of the opposition parties are invited to speak. Bilawal Bhutto, chairperson of the PPP, along with Shireen Mazari, minister for Human Rights, delivered the closing speeches at the First Asma Jahangir Conference in 2018, and former prime minister of the PPP, Yusuf Raza Gilani, had delivered the closing speech of the Second Asma Jahangir Conference in 2019.

The release said: “It is a unanimous position of almost all bar councils that every person, including an absconder, has the right to freedom of expression, and this right is enshrined in our Constitution.”

All three conferences provided a platform for stakeholders, including politicians from all major and regional parties, to speak openly about issues impacting the rule of law and protection of fundamental freedoms.

The AJ Foundation vehemently rejected allegations that the conference furthered any partisan agenda and noted that no such allegations were made at the earlier conferences when Bilawal Bhutto and Yusuf Raza Gilani delivered the closing address.

“The AJ Foundation also wishes to bring on record that several prominent members of the ruling PTI party were invited to all three conferences, many of whom spoke at all three conferences, and some others declined the invitation.

“The AJ Foundation believes that leaders of the opposition parties, big and small, should be invited to speak, and freedom of expression, even where it involves true but uncomfortable conversations, is the cornerstone of democracy. “The AJ Foundation reiterates that no one was invited to speak at the conference in violation of any law. Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA) has banned certain categories of individuals from being broadcasted on television, but no such prohibition is placed on these individuals addressing the public gatherings in general. Indeed, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif addressed gatherings previously and it is entirely regrettable, not to say embarrassing, that internet cables were disabled to black out his speech. This act in itself is an indication of the state of freedom of expression in the current regime where Pakistan is ranked as 145 out of 180 countries. The current regime has allowed airing of interviews of Ishaq Dar and former General Musharraf even though both have been declared absconders by the courts in Pakistan. In contrast, it is the view of large segments of the legal community that Nawaz Sharif’s conviction was politically motivated, he was not provided due legal process and more recent events sadly caused a further shakeup in the institutions of Pakistan. By picking on conferences and personalities, the ruling regime is diverting attention from the real threat to institutions, the state of the economy and freedom of expression in the country.

“The hundreds of hours of voluntary work to put together this event is a testament to the commitment of the AJ Foundation, AGHS Legal Aid Cell and other members of civil society who formed part of the conference committee, to the rule of law and democracy.

The AJ Foundation stands firmly with civil society in Pakistan which remains steadfast in its commitment to universal principles of human rights without fear or favour. “Our position remains that we will not follow vendettas of political parties when inviting speakers, and the AJ Conference will remain an open and uncensored platform for diverse voices across the political spectrum, added the press conference.

“To brand the event as engaging in party politics is disappointing, given no such claims were made at previous conferences where leaders of the opposition parties were delivering the closing address.

“It is also naïve and misleading to term the event as ‘political’ given any discussion on human rights, democratic freedoms and the rule of law is meaningless without the engagement of political personalities. “Equally, it is impossible to engage in a debate on the rule of law and judicial accountability without the presence of the judiciary,” the press release added.

“The sign of a true democracy is where the ruling party provides space to the opposition parties to share their narrative, and people are not only able to exercise their right to freely express themselves but also have the choice to hear differing narratives.

“We are particularly indebted to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Gulzar Ahmad, and other judges who graced the occasion and enriched our conference with their presence and insight,” said the press release.