Issue of journalists' safety didn't make it to cabinet agenda for more than a year despite attacks: Watchdog

25 Sep 2020

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PM Imran Khan's cabinet didn't discuss crimes against journalists in its first 62 meetings, says information obtained by Freedom Network. — Dawn/File
PM Imran Khan's cabinet didn't discuss crimes against journalists in its first 62 meetings, says information obtained by Freedom Network. — Dawn/File

Despite multiple attacks targeting journalists and media persons, the federal cabinet did not take up the issue in any of its first 62 meetings, that were held between September 1, 2018 and January 30, 2020, a press release by Freedom Network said on Friday.

The media rights watchdog obtained the information from the government after it filed a request for the information under the Federal Right of Access to Information Act, 2017. The statement was released three days before the International Day for Universal Access to Information, which is also observed in Pakistan.

During the time period, seven journalists and a blogger were murdered, six media persons were kidnapped and 15 were nominated in different legal cases, according to data collected by the watchdog. Additionally, the Freedom Network said, 135 "violations" against media persons were reported.

According to the press statement issued today, Freedom Network had filed a request with the government in February of this year "to seek official information on how many times the issue of growing number of murders, attacks and intimidation of journalists was taken up by the cabinet". The government provided the information last month.

“[A total of] 62 meetings of the [federal] cabinet were held during the period of 01 September 2018 to 30 January 2020. The subject [issues of safety of journalists and impunity of crimes against media] was not on the agenda during the time-interval under discussion,” Cabinet Division’s Section Officer Jamil Ahmed informed the Freedom Network through the Federal Information Commission.

The media watchdog's Executive Director Iqbal Khattak, while commenting on the information, said it was "alarming that the highest governance forum in the country [...] remained oblivious to the aggravated levels of violence against journalists and other information practitioners, including murders and attacks".

“This official disregard to violence against media and its practitioners is a direct contributory to the high levels of impunity that attackers and intimidators enjoy in Pakistan, putting the country in the list of top 10 most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism, according to international media watchdogs,” Khattak was quoted as saying.

He urged Prime Minister Imran Khan to "urgently materialise his promise" to table a bill ensuring the safety of journalists and information practitioners. The press statement mentioned that the bill has been drafted by the government but has been "pending for a long time now".

The watchdog recalled that Pakistan had endorsed the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and Issues of Impunity in October 2013, when the PML-N was in power.

"This plan includes a commitment to introduce a special law on safety of journalists," the statement said.

The press release added that in order to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No.16.10, Pakistan will have to commit, "in practical terms", to protect journalists and fighting impunity for crimes against media.

The statement by the Freedom Network comes on the same day when Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari refuted reports that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had registered cases against journalists and rights activists under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016.

"FIA examines all complaints but no FIR has been registered and FIA can't register a report under Peca without following the specified legal procedure," the minister had said in a tweet, adding that if anyone had "contrary evidence in terms of FIRs", they should inform her so that she can follow up.

Mazari was responding to a tweet posted on Thursday by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) which said it was "alarmed" by reports that cases against "49 journalists and social media activists" had been registered by the FIA under Peca.

"We demand that the state refrain from such action and stop using the FIA to curb political dissent," the commission said.

In the past few week, several cases have been registered against journalists for posting objectionable content about the state and the army.

Earlier this month, an FIR was registered against journalist Asad Toor for posting "negative propaganda against the state, Pakistani institutions and the Pakistan Army" on his social media account. A similar FIR was registered against journalist and former Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) chairman Absar Alam in Jhelum.

Prior to this, Bilal Farooqi, a senior journalist associated with English-language daily The Express Tribune was detained by Karachi police for allegedly posting "objectionable" material on social media and "defaming" the army.