The Army Knows its Constitutional Limits…

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Qamar Bashir

By: Qamar Bashir

The army chief said that while the army understands its constitutional limits, those who criticize the army should also be aware of the constitutional boundaries set by Article 19 of the constitution which subjects all citizens to reasonable restrictions imposed by law which inter alia include  the integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan, public order, decency and  morality.

The army chief’s speech at the passing-out parade of cadets at Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in Risalpur on May 2nd, 2024 was seen as a calculated and well-timed response to politicians, media personnel, and social media activists who have been unjustly criticizing the army and called for the army to uphold its oath, which includes respecting the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and refraining from engaging in any political activities.

The army chief’s words can be interpreted as a rebuke to those who are using traditional and social media to condemn the army. He seems to be implying that the army knows its responsibilities and no one has the right to dictate its actions. Instead, individuals should be mindful of their own actions and avoid crossing the boundaries set by Article 19 of the constitution.

Interestingly, the abuse and condemnation of the army on social media platforms are not unique to Pakistan. For example, in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, India, and others, the military has been subjected to criticism and abuse on social media on account of political differences, human rights concerns, and accountability issues. These countries have also implemented various remedial actions.

In the United States, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 includes provisions related to online harassment and obscenity. Additionally, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) includes provisions that address disrespectful behavior towards the military.

The Malicious Communications Act 1988 in the United Kingdom criminalizes the sending of electronic communications with the intent to cause distress or anxiety. Similarly, the Communications Act 2003 includes provisions related to offensive and menacing messages sent over electronic communications networks.

In India, the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, require intermediaries to take down certain types of content, including those that threaten public order or national security. Additionally, the Indian Penal Code includes provisions related to defamation, hate speech, and incitement to violence that can be applied to online behavior.

In Pakistan, there are 52 media laws, rules, regulations, and codes of conduct primarily aimed at imposing reasonable restrictions on the freedom of the press and social media. These can be used against any person found disseminating biased, baseless, false, and venomous propaganda against the armed forces of Pakistan. However, if there is a need to enact new laws, it should be done only after conducting a nationwide debate and benchmarking the best practices globally, involving all stakeholders to ensure their complete buy-in.

Additionally, social media platforms should be engaged proactively to implement policies, refine the existing tools and invent new ones  to combat abusive behavior on these platforms to combat hate speech and harassment and holding accountable those  who violate these policies.

Conscious efforts should be made to strengthen support for and promote traditional media, operated by seasoned, experienced, and highly refined professionals. These individuals are adept at the art and science of making difficult, sensitive, and critical communications in the best interests of our institutions, the people of Pakistan, and the country as a whole. This will enhance credibility in traditional media and discourage the spread of misinformation that often occurs in the unregulated jungle of social media. In social media, facts and reality are distorted with total impunity, often driven by the prime objective of increasing views, which translates to higher revenue. This creates added incentive for social media activists to create sensationalism, anarchy, and chaos in society. Therefore, the public should be incentivized to turn to traditional media by weaning them off social media.

However, the most important intervention which will address this issue comprehensively lies in  correcting the misconceived perception about the Pakistan army and its alleged involvement  in non-traditional roles such as anti-narcotic duties, anti-smuggling duties, and engaging in commercial activities like housing schemes, construction, large scale manufacturing and banking and serving general are appointed against civilian posts  which lead to the perceptions of overreach and a deviation from army core mandate of national defense.

Secondly, a misconceived perception which needs correction is the army’s alleged involvement in politics, victimizing disfavored politicians and rewarding  favored ones, including raising and eliminating political parties, influencing election results, and intimidating judges and election commissions, while the army time and again has assured that it has no role to play in the politics maneuvering.

Thirdly, misplaced perception is that army and institution under it are involved in human rights abuses, including abductions, torture, and intimidation of citizens, journalists and political activists to suppress free speech and dissent.

While it is paramount that the false and malicious propaganda against Pakistan’s most important and vital institution must stop, equally important is to take steps to improve Pakistan’s ranking on the Freedom of Press Index which currently rests at 150 out of 180 countries.

To dispel misperceptions about the Pakistan Army, an immediate and comprehensive strategic communication plan must be put into action. This plan should start by identifying the key misperceptions. Messaging should be crisp, clear, and consistent, emphasizing the Pakistan Army’s core mandate of national defense, its contributions to security, and its unwavering commitment to democratic values.

Engaging with stakeholders, including government officials, civil society organizations, and the general public, and forging partnerships with credible allies such as respected public figures and scholars, are crucial steps. Continuous monitoring and evaluation, coupled with transparency and sustained engagement, are fundamental elements for successfully dispelling misperceptions and fostering positive relationships with the public in Pakistan.

By: Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President

Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France

Former MD, SRBC