July 4th, 2021
By Ahmed Saeed
Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) parliamentary leader in Punjab Assembly Syed Hassan Murtaza said that his party should not have moved and voted for the bill which gives powers to the assembly’s committee to arrest journalists and sentence them after summary trial.
The bill titled as Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was passed by the Punjab Assembly on July 1st with the unanimous support of all the parties.
The legislation empowers the speaker to form a judicial committee with powers of a magistrate 1st class. The body, on a complaint of an MPA may arrest a journalist without warrant, from within the precincts of the assembly and hand down up to six months’ jail term and a fine of up to Rs10,000 for breach of any privilege mentioned in a schedule inserted into the Privileges Act II of 1972.
Prominent journalists’ bodies including PFUJ, CPNE and APNS have decried the legislation and termed it as black law. They have demanded the Punjab governor not to assent the bill and send it back to the Punjab Assembly for reconsideration.
The bill was moved by Makhdoom Usman Mahmood, PPP MPA from Rahimyar Khan and was passed by the house with the unanimous support of the treasury and opposition benches. Malik Ahmed Khan from PML-N, Mian Shafi Muhammad from ruling PTI and Sajid Ahmed Bhatti from PML-Q supported the bill and signed the bill to be presented in the assembly.
Hassan Murtaza feared that the legislation could be abused against journalists in the future. He said that he was not taken into confidence by Usman Mahmood before presenting the bill. He admitted that few clauses of the bill are against the basic ideology of his party and promised to review the bill after consulting his party leadership.
“We are ready to sit with journalists to hear their grievances and will try to amend the bill as per the wishes of the journalist community”, Murtaza said.
“I am proud of moving this bill”
When Voicepk contacted Makhdoom Usman Mahmood and asked why he moved the bill despite reservations of his own party leadership, he said that he moved the bill in line with article 66 of the constitution which deals with Privileges of members of parliament.
“I am proud to be a mover and approver of this bill as it is in the wills and wishes of the article 66 of the constitution”, Mahmood said.
PPP MPA inspired from withdrawn legislation
He also said that he didn’t know why the parliamentary leaders of his party are objecting to some of the few clauses of the bill now. He vehemently argued that his party has already passed such legislation in the senate and if they wished to criticize him they should move to repeal the senate legislation first.
“The bill I tabled is exactly the same as the one which was passed by the senate in 2014, that bill too was tabled by PPP and passed under the chairmanship of then PPP senator Raza Rabbani. If anyone wants to amend my bill, then they should first change the bill passed by the senate.”
But interestingly when Voicepk visited the senate’s website to check how similar the two bills were, it was revealed that although a similar bill was tabled by PPP senator Farahatullah Babar it was later withdrawn after severe criticism from journalists’ bodies.
Babar also confirmed to Voicepk that the bill was later withdrawn because there was a consensus that “Privileges should not be legislative”. He further said that such a legislation could have sent a wrong message to the public that their representatives are busy in safeguarding their own rights.
Tahir Bizenjo, chairman of the standing committee on Rules of Procedure and Privileges has also confirmed that there is no act regarding Privileges of senators other than the house privileges that are governed by rules of procedure and conduct of business in the Senate 2012.
When Voicepk apprised Usman Mahmood of the factual position of the 2014 bill, he remained adamant on his earlier stance and asked for a copy of current rules governing privileges motions in the senate. When the same was sent to him, the PPP MPA didn’t reply.
“Ready to reconsider the bill”
PML-N MPA Malik Ahmed Khan said that the primary objective of the bill was to curb the practice of executive non-compliance of assembly decisions by the government servants. He said the bill was moved to provide oversight to the privileges of MPAs.
He said that since the defamation laws in Pakistan are quite weak, the bill also included clauses regarding malicious or factually incorrect reporting by the journalists as it is also a breach of the lawmaker’s privilege.
However, he offered that if journalists’ bodies have some reservations about the legislation, he along with other movers of the bill are ready to sit with them and amend those parts of the bill which journalistic bodies considered as an infringement to freedom of press.
Mian Shafi Muhammad from ruling PTI also extended the same offer to journalist bodies, admitted that he signed the bill without reading it.