AT last, there is some movement on critical legislation that appeared to have been put on the back-burner. The federal cabinet on Thursday approved the Journalists and Media Protection Bill and the Forced or Involuntary Disappearance (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill, and they will be presented in the National Assembly during its next session. Parliament must make a single-minded effort to ensure that both pieces of legislation are enacted without unnecessary delay. Their passage will send the signal that this country is prepared to address two issues that have long been a blot on its global image and are completely at odds with a democratic system.

Getting to this point, where the bills are ready to be tabled, has been a frustrating process for rights activists and those directly affected by the assault on the rights to freedom of speech and due process. The International Federation of Journalists has ranked Pakistan the fifth most dangerous country for the practice of journalism. According to the organisation, 138 media practitioners here lost their lives in the line of duty between 1990 and 2020. So far this year, three journalists have been murdered in this country, and two injured in attempted assassinations. Early last year, the human rights ministry had drafted a bill hailed by journalists as being comprehensive and offering practical solutions to very real issues faced by the community. However, the cabinet decided to club it with another bill on the subject drafted by the information ministry. Journalists feared that the end result would be a considerably watered-down bill. Hearteningly, though details are still scarce, it appears that the composite draft differs only in minor details. Meanwhile, enforced disappearances that began several years ago in the backwaters of Balochistan and erstwhile Fata on the pretext of fighting terrorists and insurgents have extended to major urban centres, including Islamabad. They even take place in broad daylight. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has managed to trace a considerable number of those missing, but has utterly failed in the second part of its mandate, that is, to identify and prosecute those perpetrating these abductions. While the act in itself is illegal because it violates the right to due process, a specific law to criminalise enforced disappearances is sorely needed. At the end of the day though, implementation will make the difference between a law merely on the books, and one that actually protects the citizens.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2021

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