July 6th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha & Ahmed Saeed
Journalists and civil society activists formed a sizeable demonstration outside the Punjab Assembly on Monday, July 5, where they demanded that the Punjab government immediately repeal the anti-journalist clauses in the recently enacted Punjab Assembly Privileges’ (Amendment) Act, 2021. The journalists refused to accept the assembly Speaker’s earlier notification where he removed the controversial clauses from the Act.
The demonstration was organized by the Lahore Press Club’s Joint Action Committee (JAC). The journalists condemned the anti-journalist clauses in the act, which gives powers to the assembly’s privilege committee to arrest journalists and sentence them after a summary trial. The committee called for the removal of anti-journalist clauses including Section 21 in the Punjab Assembly Privileges Act through an amendment in the assembly.
Representatives from the committee announced that journalists would not cover proceedings in the Punjab Assembly till the draconian law was withdrawn. “Until this draconian law is repealed, the journalists will boycott coverage of all Punjab Assembly sessions,” announced Afzal Talib, President of Punjab Assembly Press Gallery.
The JAC also came down hard on Pervaiz Elahi, Speaker of the Punjab Assembly, for orchestrating the black law in connivance with assembly members from all parties. Participants raised slogans against the Speaker, accusing him of contacting various news channels owners in a bid to downplay coverage of the journalists’ protest against the passage of the draconian law.
Responding to the Speaker’s notification on July 4 about the removal of the controversial clauses, senior journalist Khwaja Naseer said that the assembly speaker had issued a notification about the removal of clauses under Section 21 of Punjab Assembly Privileges (Amendment) Act, 2021.
According to Section 21, the Punjab Assembly Speaker had the power to amend the schedule of offences through a notification in the official gazette. “The Speaker had powers to reinsert the clauses in the schedule anytime he wishes to do so under Section 21,” Khawaja Naseer said. “The removal of clauses under Section 21 is like the proverbial Damocles sword hanging over the journalists’ heads,” he said.
In his address, veteran journalist Hussain Naqi called upon the errant members of the provincial assembly to immediately remove the controversial clauses by passing an amendment in the law. “”There was a time when military governments curbed freedom of speech, arrested journalists and censored content but now unfortunately these civilian rulers want to impose their civilian martial law on the media,” Naqi told participants.
Arshad Ansari, president of Lahore Press Club, said all journalist bodies were united against the unconstitutional law under the umbrella of the JAC. He said the law reflected the dictatorial mindset of the Speaker.
“The law has been assented to by the Punjab governor, therefore, the notification by the Speaker about the removal of controversial clauses under Section 21 is unacceptable to journalists,” Ansari said. The law has to be amended through the assembly, he added. “The JAC will continue protests and sit-ins till the law is amended,” Ansari said.
Qamar Bhatti, president of Punjab Union of Journalists, said all political parties had connived to pass the controversial law but were now apologetic over it in view of the black lash from the journalists. He accused the assembly speaker and the Punjab governor of attempting to divide the journalistic community by inviting a selected group to hold negotiations with them over the controversial law. “Today’s protest shows that all journalists and media workers are united against the law,” he said.
In her address, Azma Bukhari, Member of Punjab Assembly from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, apologized on behalf of her party for passing a law that hurt the sentiments of the journalists.
“There is a new unfortunate trend in Punjab Assembly, legislation is being done through special committees and these special committees include a handful of people. This trend must stop,” Bukhari told participants.
The PML-N legislator revealed that even Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat had not read the bill. She supported the demand of the journalists that the controversial clauses should be removed from the law by bringing an amendment in the assembly. “I will talk to the assembly speaker about convening assembling session soon to amend the law,” she said.
Civil society activist Farooq Tariq said the law was only a small part of the ruling PTI government’s broader policy of imposing an authoritarian rule on the people. “All segments of society must unite to push back such authoritarianism,” he said.
The Joint Action Committee also announced a protest camp outside the Lahore Press Club. Senior journalist Imtiaz Alam, Zulfiqar Mehto, Ahsan Zia, Ziaullah Niazi, Moin Azhar, and others also addressed participants of the demonstration.