ISLAMABAD: It would seem that in Pakistan, there is nothing you need to watch out for more than making a joke
about President Asif Ali
Zardari by SMS (Short Messaging Service).
If you mistakenly, or just for fun, share with a friend one of the hundreds of derisory jokes about the leader floating around electronically, you could get a 14-year prison sentence.
Pakistan's interior minister Rehman Malik announced last week that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been tasked to trace SMS (or text messages) and e-mails that "slander the political leadership of the country" under the vague Cyber Crimes Act.
In addition to facing up to 14 years in the jail, violators could have their property seized, Malik said, adding that the government would seek Interpol assistance in deporting foreign offenders.
Surrounded by controversy throughout his political career, Zardari has been a subject of harsh public criticism since he was elected as president by the national parliament a year ago.
Most of the criticism stems from his government's sluggishness in addressing problems such as severe power outages, intolerably fast-rising inflation, and a sputtering economy.
But many jokes hint that Zardari still acts as "Mr 10 percent" - a label referring to the percentage he would allegedly receive in kickbacks in the 1990s during the two terms as prime minister spent by his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto.
One such joke portrays a school for demons at roll call. All the demons report for class, except one named Zardari. When the demon teacher asks where Zardari is, a student replies that he has "gone to rob Pakistan".
Another joke claims that the words that most frighten Zardari are the slogan: "Bhutto is still alive." It's a mantra his party workers chant often in public meetings, but it can be interpreted to mean it is unfortunate for the nation that Bhutto died and Zardari became president.
Most of the hundreds of jokes shared by 50 million SMS users of about 80 million mobile phone customers seem innocuous but can have disastrous political implications for Zardari, who according to some recent surveys is already highly unpopular among the public.
"Jokes in Pakistani political culture are a very effective way to delegitimise rulers. Historically, these have been used by the weak and helpless against the powerful," said Rasool Bux Raees, a political analyst at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Local media, human rights activists and bloggers have been swift in criticising the proposed law against anti-government SMS and online texts as "draconian and authoritarian".
The English-language newspaper the Nation said early this week that Malik's statement showed that Zardari's government had lost its nerve.
The newspaper urged the leadership of Zardari's liberal Pakistan People's Party "to consider why no other politician has become such a common butt of naughty anecdotes".
The newspaper further said the government's using the FIA's short-staffed cyber wing for political means would "seriously compromise anti-terrorism investigations".
The former director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I.A. Rehman, condemned the legislation as "standing in conflict with the freedom of expression that is guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan".
He hoped the law would soon be challenged in the Supreme Court and eventually abolished.
"For a moment I thought it was a bad joke!" wrote a blogger. "But nah its reality - Yes, 14 years for sending an indecent SMS."
Noman Bashir, 23, a student in Islamabad's prestigious Quaid-e-Azam University said initially his friends were frightened by the law but later on they thought up ways to get around it.
"We now draft the text in such a way that Zardari's name is not mentioned and yet everyone who receives it knows the joke is about Zardari," laughed Bashir.
"We are not running some organised political campaign against Zardari, but we cannot stop writing about him," he said. "You know, he is such a funny character."