ISLAMABAD: The Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights, headed by an opposition lawmaker, is set to take up the crucial issues of media censorship and denial of facilities to under-trial prisoners of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in its meeting on Friday.
The five-point agenda issued by the Senate Secretariat for the meeting shows that members of the committee, headed by Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), will receive briefings from government officials and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) on the issues related to freedom of the media in the country.
According to the agenda, the committee members will first receive a briefing by the secretary of the human rights ministry on media freedom in Pakistan in the light of the reports of international media and human rights organisations and then they will be briefed by the Pemra chairman on “legality of censorship of the coverage of the interviews and press conferences of opposition members”.
After deliberating upon the media issue, the committee members will then receive a briefing by home secretaries and inspectors-general of prisons of the four provinces on the “discrimination against the under-trial prisoners of NAB and denial of facilities to them”.
Opposition parties and media organisations have been expressing their concern and raising their voice against the government policy of putting curbs on the media for the past several months.
Opposition parties & media bodies have been expressing concern over curbs
The opposition parties and the representative bodies of journalists and media organisations are also opposed to the government’s move to set up media tribunals in the country. Before floating the idea of setting up media tribunals, the government had initiated a plan to set up a new media regulatory authority replacing Pemra and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) to regulate electronic, print and social media. The government had to shelve the project after it was also bitterly opposed by all stakeholders who alleged that the moves were intended to bring the media under control.
Talking to Dawn on Wednesday, committee’s chairman Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said the committee had decided to take up the issue of media curbs because of the concerns being shown by various local and international bodies on the state of media freedom in Pakistan in the recent past. He said that even recently the chief justice of Pakistan had talked about the “shrinking political space” in the country.
Moreover, he said, even Islamanad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minullah, during the hearing of the case of JUI-F’s ‘Azadi March’, had made an observation that there were freedom of protest and freedom of expression in the country and these could not be stopped.
“Therefore, this is about time that the issue is taken up and dealt with properly,” he declared.
Mr Khokhar, who is also the official spokesman for PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, said they wanted to hear the viewpoint of Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari on recent reports of various important organisations like the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and International Committee for Journalists on the state of media freedom in Pakistan.
He said the committee had called the Pemra chairman because of the recent “illegal and unconstitutional acts” of banning various TV programmes by the authority. He alleged that Pemra had ordered the news channels not to air press conferences of opposition leaders.
“If the government is curbing freedom of expression and Pemra is being used as a tool, then Pemra is answerable to parliament,” he added.
Mr Khokhar categorically stated that they would not leave this issue unattended anymore and they could go to any extent. He said that even if they had to take up the issue in the Senate Committee of the Whole, they would go for it.
“We want to take the matter to the next phase where the government needs to be told in clear terms that it has to back off and the media needs to be given the space which it had or the space which media needs in a functional democracy,” he said.
Responding to a question, he said the committee meeting had nothing to do with the forthcoming ‘Azadi March’ of the JUI-F. He said that even today the government blocked the coverage of the news conference of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Previously, he said, Pemra had barred airing of a TV interview of former president Asif Ali Zardari.
“You may agree or you may disagree with Azadi March. The point is that you cannot stop airing of press conferences,” he said, recalling that there was a time when Prime Minister Imran Khan used to talk about media freedom in the country.
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2019