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Journalist bodies leave govt over bid to quiet difference

• Political parties vow to challenge ‘black laws’ in court
• HRCP says govt, state functionaries accountable to citizens

ISLAMABAD: Registering a strong protest against what is believed to be a blatant attempt to curb freedom of expression through a controversial ordinance, representatives of media and journalist organizations on Monday walked out from a meeting with officials of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and vowed not to hold any further engagement with the ministry until its withdrawal.

Hours after members of the media’s Joint Action Committee (JAC) walked out of the meeting, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) endorsed their position, announcing, “HRCP stands in solidarity with media for freedom of expression.”

Besides the strong stance adopted by the journalist fraternity and civil society, two major political parties of the country also objected to the move, describing the presidential ordinance as ‘unconstitutional’ and an attempt to ‘stifle the voice of dissent’.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) also vowed to challenge the ordinance before the court of law.

Talking to Dawn, JAC member and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) president Shahzada Zulfiqar said that before staging the walkout, they told the information minister that the government had breached their trust by promulgating the ordinance only a day before their scheduled meeting.

Later, in a statement, the JAC called the engagement with the government a “farce” and announced that all discussions were being suspended until the ‘draconian amendments’ to Peca were reversed.

The JAC consists of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, PFUJ, Pakistan Broadcasters Association and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors.

“The information minister is toying with the media fraternity in the guise of engagement and keeps passing ordinances against freedom of speech while giving the impression that media fraternity is being engaged,” the JAC noted.

It stated: “There is a grave trail of examples where the ministry of information is tampering with freedom of speech, muzzling the journalists’ right to report, financially crippling media to influence journalism.”

Recalling that the fraternity had warned the government earlier as well against the dangerous trend that was creating a distance between the government and the public as well as media workers, the JAC stated: “All media bodies stand united to defend freedom of expression and people’s right to information.”

‘Undemocratic’ legislation

The HRCP deplored the new defamation law increased jail term for ‘criticism of the state’ by netizens from two to five years and made it a non-bailable offence.

“Not only is this legislation undemocratic, but it will also inevitably be used to clamp down on dissenters and critics of the government and state institutions,” observed the HRCP through its official Twitter handle.

“All government and state functionaries are reminded that they are accountable to citizens as elected representatives and public servants, respectively. It is their job to heed criticism. With other problematic laws in place to counter defamation, the proposed ordinance must be rolled back immediately,” the HRCP demanded.

Political reaction

The opposition parties came up with a sharp reaction to what they called another attack on media freedom by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government.

In a statement, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said the controversial ordinances were a failed attempt by Prime Minister Imran Khan to cover up his “incompetence and crimes”. He said the constitution gave every citizen the right to form and express his opinion regarding government’s performance. He said the amendments to Peca were aimed at depriving citizens of their basic rights.

The PPP chairman said the freedom of expression and press was being muzzled under the guise of preventing fake news. that “Khan Sahib himself is the biggest leader of fake news mafia in Pakistan,” he remarked.

Speaking at a presser in Islamabad, PML-N information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb said her party would challenge the black law inside and outside parliament and before the apex court.

She revealed that PML-N Senator Azam Nazir Tarar had been tasked with review of the amended laws after which an appropriate action would be taken.

Opposition leader in the Senate and PPP vice-chairman Yousuf Raza Gilani also told a presser in Lahore that his party would challenge the Peca amendment in a court of law.

“We reject the Peca amendment and will challenge it in a court of law, as out of fear the government is gagging the media and social media activists through draconian laws,” Mr Gilani said.

While being in opposition Mr Khan had been getting full media coverage from his container, Mr Gilani said, regretting that after coming to power the PTI was attempting to kill the voice of the media. The PTI government did not respect parliament, rather made it redundant, he said, adding that the Senate was in session a day before the ordinance was promulgated.

Also, senior PML-N leader Khwaja Saad Rafique and party’s provincial information secretary Azma Bokhari chided the PTI for amending Peca through the presidential ordinance. Such actions showed that Mr Khan was going home, said Mr Rafique.