Cabinet stops short of okaying bill for journalists protection

Updated February 26, 2020

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Approves its clubbing with an earlier bill drafted by information ministry. — Dawn/File
Approves its clubbing with an earlier bill drafted by information ministry. — Dawn/File

ISLAMABAD : The federal cabinet on Tuesday stopped short of giving its formal approval to a comprehensive draft bill prepared by the human rights ministry which aims to “promote and effectively ensure the independence, impartiality, safety and freedom of expression of journalists and media professionals”.

Instead, the cabinet gave its approval “in principle” to club it with an earlier bill prepared by the information ministry and decided to send them to the law ministry for necessary adjustments to turn them into a single bill.

Senior editors and media experts, who have seen the draft bill prepared by the human rights ministry, say it is one of the most detailed pieces of legislation to ensure protection and safety of journalists.

However, the clubbing of the two draft bills may lead to a delay in their becoming a law as after it is finalised by the law ministry, the final draft will be forwarded to the Cabinet Committee on Legislative Cases and then to the cabinet for formal approval.

Approves its clubbing with an earlier bill drafted by information ministry

After it is formally approved by the cabinet, the draft will be forwarded to parliament and, if passed, will become a law following approval by the president.

Talking to Dawn, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan acknowledged that it would still take time to provide much-needed security to journalists against harassment, kidnapping, intimidation and torture.

“But the process is in the final stage and we will try to speed it up,” she said, adding that the first meeting of media workers and journalists with the law minister will be arranged next week.

The draft bill prepared by the information ministry is mainly based on feedback from the stakeholders and the ministries of interior, finance and health, whereas the draft formulated by the human rights ministry contains excerpts from international laws and various conventions signed by Pakistan in this regard.

The bills, which have been prepared against the backdrop of a series of abductions, torture and murder of dozens of journalists over the last two decades, are an attempt to put an end to the culture of impunity in crimes against journalists in the country.

Journalists’ unions say that with about 70 journalists having been killed in the line of duty during that period, only three cases have so far been solved and the remaining culprits are still at large.

Coupled with the murders are almost daily incidents of threats and intimidation to prevent journalists from performing their professional responsibility of disseminating information to public.

Sharing some details of the draft of the bill prepared by the human rights ministry, sources in the government told Dawn that at the very outset, the bill says: “The government shall ensure that every journalist and media professional’s right to life and security of person, as contained in Article 9 of the Constitution, is safeguarded, and that no such individual is subjected to ill-treatment.”

The bill prepared by the human rights ministry assures that the government will implement best practices provided in the United Nations Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

Both the bills propose the setting up of an independent commission for protection of journalists and media professionals. The commission will be headed either by a retired Supreme Court judge or someone who has demonstrable knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to law, justice and human rights. The proposed commission will comprise representatives of journalists’ unions and press clubs and a representative of the human rights ministry as an ex-officio member.

At the same time while ensuring actions against acts that violate the right to life and security of any journalist, the proposed law states: “In order to maintain the independence, impartiality and freedom of journalists and media professionals, the government shall take steps to ensure that existing or future counter-terrorism or national security laws are not utilised arbitrarily to hinder the work and safety of journalists and media professionals, including through arbitrary arrest or detention, or the threat thereof.”

The proposed law will ensure protection against “forced or involuntary disappearances, kidnapping, abduction or other methods of coercion”, and also provide guarantees for journalists to carry out their professional work in conflict-ridden areas in the country without any threat, intimidation, harassment or fear of persecution or being attacked.

The proposed law recalls that the journalist fraternity has been demanding for the last many years right to privacy and non-disclosure of sources; independence in the performance of duties; protection from abusive, violent and intolerant behaviour; and protection against harassment.

To end the culture of impunity in crimes against journalists, the proposed law says: “No threatening, coercive, abusive or violent act, committed against journalists, shall be exempt from immediate and effective investigation and prosecution.”

The ministries of human rights and information have suggested setting up of a journalists’ welfare scheme and provision of effective training to journalists to work and operate in hostile environment, including health and safety protocols, to ensure their safety and security.

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2020