ISLAMABAD: A parliamentary committee on Friday directed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to assist its members in a forensic audit of the mobile phones of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (Pemra) chairman as well as its officials for allegedly blacking out media coverage of opposition parties.
The Senate Committee on Human Rights confronted Pemra officials for being used as a vehicle and its powers as a tool to undermine the operation of Article 19 of the Constitution.
Chairman of the committee PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said the forensic audit of mobile phones would help determine if Pemra officials had received and implemented illegal orders.
Forms subcommittee to probe and fix responsibility for blacking out media coverage of opposition parties
Two video clips were also played during the meeting in which a news channel and a renowned anchor complained of being pressured by Pemra not to air a press conference of an opposition leader.
A Pemra representative, however, denied the allegations and said he was not in the knowledge of any pressure or instructions being passed on to the media to enforce censorship.
The lawmakers noted the growing concern expressed by various media and human rights organisations over the shrinking space of freedom of expression in Pakistan.
Mr Khokhar said the concern was not without merit. He quoted the chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) as saying: “Such loss of political space may not fare well for the future of the country as a constitutional democracy. The reports of growing censorship are disturbing and such practices are a serious threat to the democratic system itself. Constitutionally guaranteed rights of citizens ought never to be compromised for short term political and governance advantages.”
He also quoted the observations of the CJP: “It was in this environment that Parliament must rise to the occasion and address this growing concern. For as rightly pointed out, no true democracy can thrive or function or even be called a democracy, without a free press and freedom to express one’s opinion on matters not only political in nature but also otherwise.”
The committee members observed that it was in this spirit and with this foresight that framers of the Constitution recognised freedom of expression as a fundamental right. They argued that their intent of safeguarding this right was in clear and categorical terms, unequivocally announced through Article 8 that any laws inconsistent with fundamental rights are to be considered void.
The members gave examples of denying media coverage to Maryam Nawaz and also of a recent interview of Asif Ali Zardari being prevented from going on air.
PML-N Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq observed that Pakistan could not complain on international forums about the violations of rights of Kashmiris when it could not safeguard its own citizens’ right to express themselves freely.
Senator Dr Jehanzeb Jamaldini drew attention towards media blackout of Baloch political figures such as Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Dr Abdul Malik.
Failing to satisfy the committee and its concerns, the committee concluded that there was sufficient evidence to infer that the Pemra chairman and certain officials had acted beyond their mandate and in utter violation of Article 19 of the Constitution.
A subcommittee was formed to specifically investigate, fix responsibility and determine if the Pemra chairman was guilty of misconduct in light of the laws. The committee will also inquire whether other officials of Pemra were also guilty of misconduct and should be proceeded against for complying with and implementing illegal orders. The subcommittee is expected to finalise its report within one month.
The committee was also of the view that a separate letter be written to the CJP urging his intervention to safeguard the operation of Article 19.
“Finally, these findings must be circulated in all media organisations/journalists. It should be made known that the human rights committee has taken notice and is seized with the matter and a subcommittee has been formed to further investigate and fix responsibility and any future harassment or illegal orders by Pemra must be reported immediately to the subcommittee,” said the chairman.
Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2019