Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights discusses attacks on minorities, regrets lack of progress

Published October 4, 2018
This file photo shows miscreants burning religious material belonging to the Christian community in Lahore's Joseph Town in 2013.
This file photo shows miscreants burning religious material belonging to the Christian community in Lahore's Joseph Town in 2013.

The Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights on Thursday said that all content concerning minorities in textbooks should be reviewed and suggested that any material spreading hate against should be expunged from the syllabus.

The committee, headed by Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, said these suggestions emanated from a discussion on the state of minority communities in the country.

"We lie on international forums when we say that Pakistan's government is working towards providing our minorities their rights," Khokhar said.

"Years have passed since the Gojra incident and the Joseph Colony incident [where a mob torched houses located in a Christian-dominated neighbourhood of Lahore in 2013] without progress in the cases."

"Claims were made about arresting the culprits and bringing them to justice," he added. "However, the men arrested in the cases were eventually set free."

Responding to the statement, a representative of the Punjab police briefed the meeting on the Joseph Colony incident.

"The police investigated the Joseph Colony incident and made arrests in the case. However, 63 members of the community went to court and recorded statements in favour of the culprits, which forced the court to set them free," the representative told the meeting.

The committee commented that the culprits in the case were set free because of the lack of evidence against them.

"The system has continuously failed to safeguard the rights of minorities," Khokhar regretted.

"If the police had support from political figures and the government, they would be able give better results," the police representative retorted.

"When they use force, cases are registered against the police itself," he said, adding that at this moment, the police itself needs protection.

Briefing on destruction of Ahmadi place of worship

Briefing the committee on the demolition of an Ahmadi place of worship in Sialkot earlier this year, the Punjab police representative said the issue had arisen when members of the community wished to add another storey to a place of worship.

"However, the administration took notice of the second storey being built and sealed the building. The situation worsened once people from the District Management Authority came to demolish the illegal construction."

According to a Jamaat-i-Ahmadiyya press release from May 24: "More than 600 miscreants chanting slogans joined in and started demolishing an Ahmadi worship place near the building,"

It added that the "vandalism" had continued until 4:30 in the morning.

During the meeting, in an apparent reference to the removal of Dr Atif R. Mian from the Economic Advisory Council, members of the police said, "What can a District Police Officer be expected do if members of the Ahmadi community cannot even survive on a government committee."

"The police force needs the government's support," he reiterated.

Ad against Manzoor Pashteen discussed

Moving on, the committee chair took up for discussion a controversial ad targeting a Pashtun leader.

"An advertisement campaign regarding safety measures to be taken during the month of Muharram portrayed the chief of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) Manzoor Pashteen in a negative light," the head of the committee observed, adding that the campaign had hurt the sentiments of the Pashtun community.

The Punjab government responded to the matter.

The Punjab government's director general of public relations (DG PR) told the meeting that the ads had been released by the Punjab government.

"However, the video for these ads was made by an [independent] advertising agency and no department of the Punjab government was involved in its creation," he said, adding that the matter had been investigated and the agency involved blacklisted.

"The director of coordination has also been removed from his post," the DG PR said.

In response to this, Senator Farhatullah babar said that the Ministry of interior's letter to the advertising agency should be provided to the committee.

"The terms of reference through which the inquiry in the advertisement campaign was made should also be given to the committee," Senator Babar added.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) chairman told the committee that the ad had run on a state-run television channel and he had no authority over it.

"The state television channel does not fall under Pemra," the chairman explained while adding that he did what he could do on the matter — that is, write to the state-run broadcaster and point out the ad for review.

The committee asked for a copy of the letter written by the authority to the TV channel.

Discussion on censorship

The committee also discussed the matter of media censorship in the country.

"Media persons are being pressured and the environment for working journalists is constantly deteriorating," Khokhar observed, noting that this was against the spirit of Article 19 of the Constitution.

"The reality of pressure on the media should be brought to the fore," Khokhar said, acknowledging that political parties have also raised the matter at various fora.

Member of the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) Duraid Qureshi told the committee that when members of the association raise their voices against censorship, their channels are taken off-air.

"I have come to this meeting on the Human Rights' committee's insistence; now they should take the responsibility of making sure our channels are not taken off-air," Qureshi said.

During the discussion, Senator Farhatullah Babar claimed: "The Inter-Services Public Relations' (ISPR) media empire is affecting the freedom of expression."

"Asma Jahangir brought a petition to the Supreme Court in which she had asked that the ISPR should disclose which channels it funds," Babar recalled. "This is the first time we're discussing this sensitive matter."

"If something happens to any member of the committee, then it should be assumed that the agencies were behind it," he said.

"The committee will write to all inspectors general of police and tell them to register FIRs against cable operators who take channels off air," the committee chairman assured.

"The ISPR termed [some] journalists 'anti-state' in its press conferences and on Twitter," Babar continued. "I fear that matters will only worsen as we move forward."

"[Therefore] this matter should not be confined to this committee. The committee should move ahead and name and shame [those behind press censorship]," he said.

"The Senate's Whole Committee should be convened on this matter, which will prepare a report on the matter and present it to the chairman Senate. The relevant institutions should then be summoned for an in-camera debate on the issue," he proposed. "We need a parliamentary committee on the freedom of expression."

Senator Khokhar subsequently suggested that all PBA members speaking on press freedom be provided protection. It was also decided that the committee would hold a public hearing on media censorship.

"In the second phase, a meeting of a committee of the whole house will be called to address the matter of media censorship," Senator Khokhar said.

"In the final phase, the committee will call the heads of the departments on whom fingers are being pointed," Senator Khokhar said, hoping the matter progresses without hiccups and that he would not be forced to "take this last step first".

"The heads of relevant departments will immediately be called in if anything happens to reporters who present themselves to the committee," he concluded.

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