September 12, 2021
By Ahmed Saeed and Hamid Riaz
Text by Rehan Piracha
Media workers from across the country on Sunday marched to the Parliament House to raise a united voice against the federal government’s proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA), following the call of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
Participants of the massive Press Freedom Rally, organized by the Rawalpindi Islamabad Union of Journalists, broke through barricades and police cordon set up on the Constitution Avenue to prevent them from entering D-Chowk outside the Parliament building. The journalists set up a sit-in camp in front of the Parliament House overnight, setting the stage for Monday’s peaceful protest during the address of President Arif Alvi to the joint sitting of both houses.
As the journalists staged a sit-in, the entry gates were sealed and a heavy contingent of Islamabad police was deployed outside the Parliament building.
Censorship nothing new: Hamid Mir
Speaking to Voicepk.net from the sit-in camp, senior journalist Hamid Mir said censorship was not a new phenomenon in the country. “The struggle of journalists against censorship has continued for many years,” he added.
Mir said media restrictions, which were first imposed in the military regime of Gen Ayub Khan, have continued to this day, adding that he had no idea whether censorship would ever end in the country. “The struggle and resistance of journalists against media restrictions and censorship will continue,” he said.
Asked why he is still off air from news channels despite there being no ban, Mir said the question should be put to the channel owners as Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary had told the standing committee on information that the government had not banned him, adding that the ban was not placed by the government but by those already known to all. “I was banned on the pretext of a speech after my last show on the proposed PMDA legislation in which I pointed out that it was a move to stifle the media in the country,” Mir said.
Women journalists join in
Women journalists also joined the sit-in camp outside the Parliament. “A sizeable number of female journalists and reporters joined the rally today along with their male counterparts because they are faced with same media restrictions and censorship,” said Nayyer Ali from the Islamabad Rawalpindi Union of Journalists.
She said the journalists have put forth four demands including delayed salaries, cut in allowances and pay, and lay-offs and security of journalists. She said all representative associations of journalists were united in the PFUJ’s protest against the PMDA.
Earlier, hundreds of journalists gathered at the National Press Club for the Press Freedom Rally. Participants, holding placards and banners, chanted slogans against media restrictions and censorship in the country, expressing their resolve to continue the struggle for press freedom in the country.
Nasir Zaidi, Secretary-General PFUJ, said the government did not hold consultations with stakeholders like APNS, CPNE, PBA, AMEND, and PFUJ as claimed by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary. He said credible media associations have rejected the PMDA which they considered to be martial law regulation.
“Prior to this we struggled against every law to control the press in the eras of dictators, and we will struggle against such laws even today,” said Zaidi.
“The government wants to control digital media, which is the only channel left in terms of freedom of expression in the country, but any move to control social media is unacceptable to the PFUJ,” he added.
Shahzada Zulfiqar, President of PFUJ, said the journalists are holding a protest rally against the federal government plan to establish the proposed PMDA.
“It’s not just only the journalists who have rejected the PMDA but media houses, digital, print, electronic and digital media, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan Bar Council, Supreme Court Bar Association, and several rights organisations have also raised an outcry against the government’s move,” he told Voicepk.net.
“It will be a sword of censorship hanging over the head of journalists in fear of cancellation of the no-objection certificate issued by the PMDA,” he said. “The day you are critical of the government, the NOC will be cancelled,” he added.
The PFUJ president said the government can now only enforce the PMDA law by force as journalists, rights activists, and opposition parties have rejected it.
Senior journalists and leaders from opposition parties addressed participants prior to the start of the rally.
In his address, Mir said the proposed PMDA is a threat to Pakistan’s soft image and credibility internationally. “Journalists are raising their voice against media restrictions and censorship in the national interests of the country,” he said. “We are protesting in order to safeguard Article 19 and other Constitutional provisions,” he added.
Mir said the journalists were open to a live discussion with government officials in order to prove that the proposed PMDA bill will hurt Pakistan’s soft image and undermine freedom of the press in the country.
Senior journalist Matiullah Jan called the proposed PMDA a ‘black law’ that is being enacted in a dictatorial way without consultations and debate in society. “The government is bringing this black law to conceal their misgovernance,” he added.
“The PMDA law will increase restrictions on journalists who will face steep fines and sentences and against the population’s right to information and freedom of expression,” he added.
He said suspicions have been raised because of the clandestine manner in which the government is trying to enforce the PMDA law. “The draft law in circulation is draconian. The government has leaked the draft law but has refused to accept it,” he pointed out.
“It’s dishonesty on part of the government that it wants to bring a law by refusing to accept after leaking its draft to the public,” Jan said. The government is gauging reaction and will cunningly alter it accordingly
According to Jan, there is no need to bring another law to regulate digital media which is already covered under the cybercrime law in cases of defamation.
Former PFUJ secretary-general Mazhar Abbas explained that the PMDA is not just to control journalists but all media, including movies, pictures, and social media content. According to Abbas, the federal government is confused over the proposed PMDA.
In the last meeting of joint sitting of standing committees of National Assembly and Senate, the government proposed a draft bill on the PMDA, he said. “It looks that the government wants to merge all media under this single regularity authority but the government is afraid to admit the draft bill in view of the backlash,” he said.
The former prime minister and PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said his party would support the journalists’ movement against the PMDA. “If journalists are not free in a country, then neither are its citizens,” he said, promising that the PML-N will stand by journalists in their struggle for a free press in the country.
In her address to the rally, Pakistan Peoples Party MNA Shazia Marri reiterated party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto’s support for journalists. “The PPP will prevent the proposed PMDA from being passed into law,” she told participants.
Later, journalists, civil society activists, lawyers, and opposition lawmakers chanted slogans against the PMDA as they marched towards the Parliament. Protesting journalists removed barricades set up to prevent them from entering D-Chowk while chanting slogans for their rights and freedom of expression.
With reports of police possibly bringing in water canons, former PFUJ President Afzal Butt asserted that the rally will reach D-Chowk in spite of road blockades, barned wires, and a police cordon.
As the rally came onto Constitution Avenue, protesting journalists managed to push past police in riots gear attempting to stop them from reaching D-Chowk. The participants set up a sit-in camp on the green belt opposite the entrance of the Parliament building. The journalists said the sit-in will last until the Presidential address slated for Monday.
Protesting journalists plan to remain at D-Chowk overnight. Other organizations and fellow media workers are to join the sit-in camp on Monday morning ahead of the joint sitting of Parliament. The demonstrators said there will be no negotiations unless the PMDA is completely shelved by the federal government. Civil society representatives, activists, lawyers, and lawmakers from the opposition parties will also participate in the sit-in outside the Parliament.