July 29th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
The National Assembly on Monday witnessed a heated debate on attacks on journalists and press freedom in the country.
The PML-N and PPP members claimed that the ruling PTI government had done nothing to prevent attacks on media workers while Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary called reports of media curbs in Pakistan as part of a foreign propaganda.
Speaking on a budget cut motion, Maryam Aurangzaib, member of National Assembly from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, said the ruling government’s performance is similar to German fascist ruler Hitler’s Information Minister Goebbels. “Imran Khan’s government is following policy of building castles in the air and eliminating opponents like Goebbels,” she said.
The PML-N party spokesperson opposed giving a single rupee to the Information Ministry. “Should the Ministry of Information be paid for abusing the opposition, lying and casting accusations? She added.
“Journalists are on the street, their tongues tied, their stoves cold and now the Media Development Regulatory Authority is being planned to kill the freedom of expression in the country,” the PML-N spokesperson said.
The opposition MNA called upon enactment of legislation for the protection and security of journalists instead of announcing the Pakistan Media Development Authority. “There is no need for black law on media development,” she said.
Maryam Aurangzaib said there is an urgent need for a law to protect and secure journalists and the media in the country. “Investigation reports on the attacks on journalist Matiullah Jan, Absar Alam and Asad Toor should be made public,” she said. The opposition legislator questioned as to why investigation reports did not come out as quickly as corruption references against opposition members. “Imran Khan should know that ‘Pakistanism’ cannot be promoted by shooting journalists and hitting the opposition with budget books,” she added.
Speaking on a cut motion, Shazia Marri, MNA from PPP, cited a Supreme Court ruling about the nebulus in the attacks on journalists. She said elements that attack journalists are hidden from view unlike in the past where everybody knew who the attackers were.
Referring to a standing committee meeting in which journalist Asad Toor briefed the participants about the attack on him, Marri said that Asad Toor told the committee that the assailants identified themselves as agents of a state intelligence agency. “It is incumbent upon us as members of the House as to clarify whether Asad Toor was attacked by a state agency or not so that an institution is not maligned,” she added.
Marri concluded her speech with a quote from former party chairperson and prime minister Benazir Bhutto. “It is when people are kept in the dark that the greatest travesties in the world have occurred. It is when journalists are whipped for telling the truth, we are in the greatest danger,” she quoted Benazir Bhutto.
Mohsin Dawar, MNA from Waziristan, said the media in the country did not belong to the people and nor could it ever belong to them. “The media, either state-owned or privately-owned, is used as a propaganda against us,” he said. Referring to Khar Qamar incident in Waziristan, he said the media in the country was reporting diametrically opposed to the international media about facts of the event,” he pointed out. Similarly, the media in the country did not report on claims that Senator Usman Kakar was murdered and did not cover the historic gathering of people at the late senator’s people. “Why did the media remain silent on the murder of Senator Kakar and not cover the funeral?” he pointed out.
“Journalists Asad Toor, Matiullah Jan, Absar Alam and Hamid Mir were being coerced into positive reporting but were removed from their news channels when they refused,” he said. “When these journalists continued their work on social media, they were shot and assaulted,” he added. “Unfortunately, no clue has been traced to the above attacks uptil now,” Dawar said.
Besides, the MNA said, cases of sedition were registered against journalists Asma Shirazi and Hamid Mir, and political workers.
“Interestingly, the content of these first investigation reports are exactly same whether filed in Bahawalpur or other cities,” he added.
Responding to the opposition criticism, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary said that there had been far fewer attacks on journalists in the PTI tenure than the previous tenures of the PML-N and PPP governments.
“Most attacks on journalists occurred in the tenure of PPP government. There were 39 attacks in which 32 journalists were killed in the PPP government, followed by 18 attacks in the PML-N tenure that killed 14 journalists,” the information minister said.
Chaudhary said that there had been 8 attacks on journalists in the PTI tenure and all suspects in these attacks had been arrested. “The cases of attacks on journalists are now being heard by the courts,” he added. “Unfortunately, we have no information of the two journalists slain—Aziz Memon and Ajay Lalwani- that were killed in Sindh in the above attacks,” he said.
The information minister said that the PPP MNA Shazia Marri could enlighten the House about the developments in these two cases as her party was ruling the province.
Regarding the Pakistan Media Development Authority issue, the information minister said the PML-N spokesperson should apologise for spreading fake news on enforcement of PMDA through an ordinance in an earlier speech. “Fake news against Pakistan originate from India and get a boost from Afghanistan,” he said.
Responding to Mohsin Dawar’s assertion that the mainstream media does not cover their issues, Fawad Chaudhary retorted that the MNA from Waziristan had no need for state media as the international media was giving them much coverage. “Why do you need state media coverage, you already have international media doing that,” he responded to Mohsin Dawar’s claim.
The information minister claimed that international news outlets were regularly writing about alleged media curbs in Pakistan as part of a sponsored and paid campaign. “Do you think if the newspapers in the United States print opinions of certain individuals here about curbs of freedom of expression in Pakistan, the newspapers print it free of cost? Every word that is printed is paid,” the information minister said.
Fawad Chaudhary said everybody in the House knew who is paying for this propaganda. “Don’t lecture us on the freedom of expression,” he added. The information said close to 250 Pakistani channels and 43 international channels operating in Pakistan. “All of them working independently in Pakistan,” he pointed.
The information minister said the opposition and the treasury members should have unanimity on issues linked to national interests. “We must not let ourselves to be used by the international establishment for petty gains,” he said.
Talking about the Journalists’ Protection Bill, Fawad Chaudhary said the bill was pending with the standing committee on human rights, chaired by PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto. “The standing committee should pass the bill immediately,” he said.
Responding to the information minister’s claims, Shazia Marri said the PPP government in Sindh did not show any negligence in murder cases of journalists. “The Aziz Memon case has been discussed in the standing committee and the family was compensated,” she told the House.
Marri said the opposition and the stakeholders who are journalists want a threadbare discussion on the Journalists Protection bill. “The chairman of the standing committee has already nominated a sub-committee to work on the bill which will be chaired by a member from the PTI,” she clarified.
Editor in chief of Voicepk.net, and senior journalist Munizae Jahangir, who has apprised the standing committee on human rights on reservations of the journalistic community over the bill, said that the bill is toothless in view of assaults and harassment from state institutions. “The bill does not list any mechanism on how powerful state agencies will be investigated for any complaints of assault or harassment,” she said.
Munizae Jahangir said the restrictions put in place in Article 19 of the Constitution relating to freedom of expression and the freedom of press have been misused to pressurize the journalistic community.
Media is barred from reporting on the integrity, security, or defence of Pakistan as well as on ties with friendly relations with foreign countries, public order, decency or morality under Article 19 of the Constitution.
According to Munizae Jahangir, media representative bodies are calling for amendment in the Article 19 to remove these restrictions that are vital for an independent and vibrant media in the country.