MMfD submits response to UNSR on Academic Freedom and the Freedom of Opinion and Expression in Pakistan

Photo by Ali Ahsan on Unsplash

Islamabad – Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) submitted its response to the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, regarding the threats to and scope, promotion and enforcement of academic freedom in Pakistan. The concerned Special Rapporteur is currently studying the scope and protection of academic freedom as a component of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The submission, which can be accessed here, was made on April 30, 2020, and was authored by Waqas Naeem, Zoya Rehman, and Amel Ghani. The outcome of the study will contribute to the report of the Special Rapporteur to the 75th Session of the General Assembly in the fall of 2020.

This submission provides an overview of academic freedom in Pakistan, and the extent to which freedom of opinion and expression is accorded in Pakistan’s universities. We believe that universities have a special role to play in a democracy, and are key sites for defining freedom of expression and opinion, or lack thereof, in Pakistan’s academic spaces.

The submission sheds light on the education crisis that Pakistan is undergoing, and the problems linked to higher education in the country. These problems include crackdowns on student participation in politics, sudden terminations of professors, legal and extralegal actions taken against academics for their political and social views, lax responses to campus violence and sexual harassment offences, and physical attacks on students and teachers on the basis of political and religious identity or ideology. We believe that, on a whole, Pakistani students are actively discouraged to think critically and challenge the status quo. Even in textbooks, a distorted picture of historical events and facts is presented to reinforce a particular Islamised ideology and homogenous national identity. The curriculum followed in public schools and universities fuels attitudes of intolerance and leaves little ideological space in regards to the contributions and inclusion of religious minorities in Pakistan. 

MMfD discusses the international and domestic frameworks that govern academic freedoms in Pakistan, as well as factors such as religious intolerance, state intervention, campus unrest, suppression of dissent, gendered violence, physical attacks and murders, and student resistance. We note that the ongoing trends of censorship, surveillance, self-disciplining, anti-intellectualism, lack of critical or original thinking, and depoliticisation of young students, as well as their radicalisation, have left a lasting impact on academic freedoms in Pakistan. 

MMfD demands that the government of Pakistan show a stronger commitment towards the encouragement of free thinking in higher education spaces, by promoting institutional and academic autonomy. Fostering an environment where critical thinking is encouraged, and freedom of expression and association are fully realised, is key for any academic space and its members to thrive. 

Perhaps these goals can be fully realised with the enactment of legislation that prohibits attacks against progressive scholars and students within university campuses, particularly in regards to the false blasphemy charges that are levelled against students and professors alike. With that, we hope that the Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and the Right to Education are able to delve further into the threats that are experienced in spaces of higher education within Pakistan.

We hope that relevant stakeholders are able to benefit from this research. 

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Zoya Rehman is a Special Projects Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She is a feminist researcher and organiser based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She has been working on gender and legal issues from a multidisciplinary approach through her practice and research. Zoya is a recipient of the Chevening Scholarship Award, and holds MA in Gender Studies and Law at SOAS, University of London.

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