ISLAMABAD: Criticism from almost all the representative bodies of media organisations on the controversial issue of setting up of special media tribunals in the country put the government on the back foot as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan on Thursday said the government had not yet prepared any “final draft” of legislation on the matter.
Speaking at the oath-taking ceremony of the Parliamentary Reporters Association (PRA), Dr Awan said the government would take all the stakeholders on board and the final draft of the proposed legislation would be shared with all the representative bodies of media organisations, adding: “The government does not want to take a solo flight [on the issue].”
“I assure you that till today, the government has not prepared any final draft nor has it formulated any proposal for the law ministry to prepare the legislation regarding establishment of media tribunals,” she said.
National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser administered the oath to the elected office-bearers of the PRA.
“You are the stakeholders. It can never happen that we impose this on you without discussing it with the stakeholders,” Dr Awan said, adding that the final draft would be shared with the media organisations and their bodies after the return of prime minister from the US.
Special assistant to the prime minister criticises the performance of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and Press Council of Pakistan
“Things that are forcefully imposed cannot be sustained,” she said, as she acknowledged that “consultations and discussions” were held on the issue of the media tribunals, but the government had not made any final decision in this regard.
Dr Awan — who has served as minister in the military regime under Gen Pervez Musharraf and the PPP government under then president Asif Ali Zardari — claimed the issue came up for discussion in the last cabinet meeting when some ministers complained to Prime Minister Imran Khan that they were being maligned by some sections of the media.
After listening to the ministers, the prime minister asked as to what could be done to compel the media to “act responsibly”.
“The government wants that a mechanism be formed that is independent of the government and upholds the principles laid out in the Constitution. But [we want to do this while] sitting with the media, in partnership with them, to determine some process about which direction we want to take this country in,” she said while defending the government’s move.
Dr Awan said that presently 698 cases related to media workers’ rights and associated with the country’s national interests and public service delivery were pending in various courts.
She said media was the fourth pillar of the state and its empowerment was imperative for a strong state, democracy and good governance. She said the prime minister not only acknowledged the media’s role as a watchdog but was determined to further strengthen this role.
“No state in the world can become strong without free and independent media,” she said, adding that the media should also keep national interests in mind while reporting.
She was of the opinion that “negative reporting” by “some sections of the media” was discouraging investors and the overseas Pakistanis who wanted to help the country overcome the present economic crisis.
She said the government was answerable to the media, but at the same time wanted it to play a responsible role in dealing with matters relating to national interests.
Criticising the performance of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) and Press Council of Pakistan (PCP), she said there was a need for restructuring these bodies to meet the requirements of the media industry. She said under the new legislation, interests of the media workers would be protected.
Dr Awan said that she and her ministry had no role to play on the issue of non-payment of salaries to the staff of various TV channels in the presence of Pemra, which was a regulatory body empowered to issue licences to the owners of the channels. However, she regretted that Pemra was not playing its role in this regard.
Similarly, she said, the PCP had failed to address the issues of the working journalists.
Briefing reporters after the cabinet meeting on Sept 17, Dr Awan had stated that the government had approved a plan to form ‘‘media courts’’ for the first time in the country, apparently to seek disposal of media-related cases within a time limit of 90 days.
She had said the proposed “media tribunals” would be formed after passage of a bill by parliament while conceding that the government had not taken all the stakeholders — including media personnel, owners of media houses and the media bodies — into confidence on the move.
“The prime minister has ordered that a bill envisaging formation of media tribunals be tabled in the current session of the National Assembly for a healthy debate on the issue,” she had said.
Following the government’s announcement, politicians, media bodies and human rights groups rejected the idea of setting up of special media tribunals and termed the move an attempt to launch a “witch-hunt against media”.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2019