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LAHORE: The South Asian Free Media Association (Safma) has announced it will hold protest rallies and sit-ins besides fighting a legal battle after the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) sealed its offices in Shadman-II on Tuesday on the pretext of commercial activity in a residential area.

“The activities we have been carrying out here since long don’t fall in the definition of commercialization, as the Safma is a non-profit organization that works for the capacity building of journalists and struggles for free media under Article 123 of the constitution of Pakistan. Being a subsidiary of Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Safma is a certified organization and a property of all journalists of Saarc member countries,” Safma secretary general Imtiaz Alam told journalists.

“Since we strongly condemn the action, we have now no option but to start holding protests and sit-ins outside this Safma building sealed by the LDA despite the fact the case is being heard by the Lahore High Court and the next hearing is due next month,” he added.

LDA says action taken on residents’ complaints, court order

The LDA administration on the other hand said it took the action after many people of the area approached the Lahore High Court several years ago, requesting it to intervene into the matter by directing the government to stop commercial activities in the residential area. “We have followed the court orders in true letter and spirit and we will not allow anyone to carry out commercial activities that disturb the residents,” LDA’s director general Ms Amina Imran Khan told Dawn.

“Since the activities being carried out by Safma are really causing public nuisance, we sent a fresh notice to its administration three weeks ago to vacate the building and stop such activities. But they didn’t bother and finally we were left with no option but to seal it to save the residents from further disturbance,” she maintained.

Earlier Mr Imitiaz Alam criticized the government for targeting Safma through various tactics.

“In Johar Town alone, 2,000 plots are under illegal occupation of land mafia. In the surroundings of Safma head office, many buildings are being used for commercial activities. In general, everywhere in Lahore many premises are being used for commercial purposes unlawfully allegedly in connivance with the LDA. But the LDA targeted the Safma alone despite the fact we are running a library and a school for teaching journalists media’s code of ethics,” he deplored.

He said he wouldn’t name anyone behind influencing LDA to take such an action against Safma. “But one thing is clear that whatever has happened has been done on the orders received from the ‘Top’. Please let us know clearly which things you like or not. If you want to stop running this school for media, we will do it. If you want us not to follow the objectives of Saarc, we are ready. But remember that Safma is the voice of journalists and we started it from a laptop. If you are shutting this office, we have other options to continue our work anywhere in Lahore, including the press club,” he warned.

He said buildings were sealed and de-sealed in Lahore under some regulations. “The LDA even didn’t allow us to at least shift our important record from here to some other place. Even some members of Safma and a pet dog were in this building when it was being sealed by the LDA. And now we are worried how to take them out of the building since it is sealed. And if we try to go inside it would be violation of the law,” Mr Alam said. “I would also take up the matter with the ISPR very soon.”

On the other hand, an LDA spokesman dispelled the impression, stating that the Safma building was sealed in accordance with law and under the court orders. “Nine years before, as many as 50 residents of Shadman had filed a writ petition complaining that the unlawful commercial activities by Safma have been causing disturbance to them since long. In 2014, the court ordered the LDA’s director commercial to hear the petitioners in person and take necessary legal action,” the spokesman said in a press release.

Later, the residents approached the court again on Jan 22 this year and complained that Safma’s activities were still going on. The court summoned LDA officials and issued necessary directions to them in this regard. Following the directions, the LDA heard the stances of both the parties and finally on Feb 14, the court ordered LDA to take action. The LDA, through a notice, directed Safma to stop such activities within three weeks but it didn’t bother. “And finally on Tuesday, the Safma building was sealed under the law,” the LDA spokesman added.

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2018