Pakistan's top court tells army to stay out of politics, media

Pakistani security officials stand guard outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Jan 29, 2019.
Pakistani security officials stand guard outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Jan 29, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's Supreme Court rebuked the powerful military and intelligence agencies on Wednesday (Feb 6), calling for them to uphold free speech and stay out of politics in a country ruled by the generals for nearly half its existence.

The unusually strong criticism was issued in a judgement released criticising the role of the intelligence agencies in anti-blasphemy protests that paralysed the capital Islamabad for several weeks in 2017.

"If any personnel of the armed forces indulges in any form of politicking or tries to manipulate the media, he undermines the integrity and professionalism of the Armed Forces," the judgement, posted on the Supreme Court website, stated.

Pakistan's Constitution "emphatically prohibits" members of the armed forces from "engaging in any kind of political activity", it added, ordering the government and the chiefs of the army, air force and navy to take action against anyone found violating their oaths to uphold the document.

The 2017 protests were led by a then-little known Islamist group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), and were only dispersed after violent clashes led to a military-brokered deal which forced the resignation of the federal law minister.

Viral videos showing what appeared to be soldiers handing out cash to protesters helped fuel speculation the demonstrators were backed by the military as it sought to put pressure on the then-ruling party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

The judgement also spelled out curbs on free speech, singling out the intelligence agencies for a stern warning.

"All intelligence agencies... and the (military's media wing) must not exceed their respective mandates. They cannot curtail the freedom of speech and expression," the judgement said.

"Those who resort to such tactics under the mistaken belief that they serve some higher goal delude themselves," it continued.

Local media have complained about pressure in the run-up to a general election in July to self-censor in favour of the eventual victor, cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan.

Activists and bloggers speaking out against the state and military have also complained of repression.

Earlier this week, some 20 activists with the Pashtun Protection Movement, a group critical of military policies, were arrested while demonstrating in Islamabad.

Most were transferred to a nearby prison, but the family of one, prominent activist Gulalai Ismail, voiced fears she had been forcibly disappeared. Police did not respond to requests for comment from AFP.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said the army had "quietly but effectively, set restrictions on reporting" in a report released September last year.

Pakistan's courts have cautioned the military establishment against meddling before - and paid a price.

An Islamabad High Court judge was ousted last year after he publicly accused the country's top intelligence agency of manipulating judicial decisions to influence the general election.