May 7th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
The federal cabinet has approved a much sought after bill on protection of journalists which will be tabled in the National Assembly’s next session.
However, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Freedom Network Pakistan gave a guarded welcome saying it remains to be seen whether the government included their recommendations to stem deep-rooted impunity for crimes against journalists and media professionals in the country.
Speaking at a media briefing in Islamabad on Friday, Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhary said media companies will be bound to ensure the safety of journalists and media professionals operating in conflict zones as well as demonstrations in the country under the proposed Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill 2021.
The information minister said the bill has been approved by the federal cabinet, terming it a landmark development for journalists in the country. In a tweet, Shireen Mazari, Federal Minister for Human Rights, shared the salient features of the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill which was drafted by her ministry. She said the bill will be tabled in the next session of the National Assembly, thanking the prime minister for his support towards media protection bill as well as another bill on Forced or Involuntary Disappearance (Criminal Law Amendment) which the federal cabinet approved on Thursday.
PFUJ not consulted on bill
Shahzada Zulfiqar, President of the PFUJ, told Voicepk.net that the government did not consult or share a draft of the bill with his organization prior to the approval of the cabinet. “We don’t know whether the recommendations we put forward were incorporated or rejected,” he said.
Secondly, Zulfiqar feared that previously Federal Law Minister Farogh Naseem had opposed the bill saying that it was in conflict with Article 25 of the Constitution. “Given the opposition of the law minister, the bill might turn out to toothless in dealing with crimes against journalists,” he said.
According to the salient features of the bill made public, the commission for protection of journalists will report institutions or organisations involved in threatening or harassing journalists to the federal government instead of a court of law, Zulfiqar pointed out. “This unacceptable as the government could sit on the findings for as long it wants without taking any corrective measures for the protection of media professionals,” he added.
Recommendation for special public prosecutor unclear
Sharing concerns with the PFUJ, Iqbal Khattak of Freedom Network Pakistan said it remains to be seen how far the government went to accommodate its recommendations such as the appointment of a special public prosecutor to deal with cases of violence against journalists and media professionals.
“We welcome this much-delayed action on part of the cabinet to finally get the bill approved and hope the bill will be referred to the parliament soon,” Khattak told Voicepk.net.
He said the bill must meet best international practices to defend journalists. “I hope, the bill will be able to stem the deep-rooted impunity for crimes against journalists and media in the country,” he added.
Commission for Protection of Journalists
According to the salient features, the bill provides for the establishment of the Commission for Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals under Section 12. The commission will include members from the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and National Press Club (NPC) and representatives from the Ministry of Human Rights and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Media professionals and journalists can complain to the commission about threats, or acts of torture, killing, violent attacks, arbitrary arrest, arbitrary detention, and harassment, faced by them. The commission will inquire into the complaints and determine cases eligible for compensation from relevant federal and provincial funds.
The commission will report its findings to the federal government about any institution or organization who is, directly or indirectly, involved in violating, or attempting to violate, the rights to life of media professionals. The commission will also recommend the appropriate course of action against the perpetrator(s) of these violations under Section 3.
Confidentiality of sources
Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary said the proposed bill protects the confidentiality of sources of journalists and media professionals. “No journalists will be asked to reveal the identity of his/her sources under the bill,” Chaudhary said.
Under Section 9, a Journalist Welfare Scheme will be instituted whereby each media owner shall produce a comprehensive, written safety policy and protocols for journalists and media professionals in their organisations.
Protection from harassment
The bill provides the right to protection from harassment to media professionals and journalists. It acknowledges the right of journalists and media professionals to be allowed to carry out their journalistic work in conflict-hit areas within the country, without threats, intimidation, harassment or fear of persecution or targeting.
Under Section 3, every journalist and media professional’s right to life and security of person, as contained in Article 9 of the Constitution, is safeguarded.