ISLAMABAD: In an unprecedented move, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser on Monday ordered locking of the press gallery during President Dr Arif Alvi’s address to a joint session of parliament, forcing journalists to stage a protest sit-in outside his office.
The action of the speaker came in the wake of the call given by the Parliamentary Reporters Association (PRA) to stage a walkout from the press gallery during the president’s address and join their colleagues who had been protesting outside the Parliament House since Sunday on the call of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) against the government’s plan to set up the controversial Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA).
The reporters who had been issued special invitation cards from the Presidency for the occasion were surprised to see both the Press Lounge and Press Gallery, situated on the third floor of the Parliament House, locked when they reached there for the coverage.
The agitating reporters first staged a sit-in at the main entrance of the Parliament House and then shifted it in front of the Speaker’s Office. The journalists, including some of the most senior reporters, remained there throughout the president’s speech and kept on chanting slogans against the speaker’s act, terming it “unconstitutional and illegal”.
Journalists term act unconstitutional, illegal; opposition leaders visit media persons’ protest camp, vow to resist passage of PMDA bill
Later, they joined the media persons’ protest camp outside the Parliament House which was also visited by the opposition leaders, including PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party head Mehmood Khan Achakzai.
Speaking on the occasion, the opposition leaders expressed solidarity with the protesting journalists and assured them that they would not let the government pass the controversial legislation seeking establishment of the PMDA from parliament.
Maulana Fazl said that a plan to hold long march towards Islamabad to give a final push to the present government was under active consideration of the opposition parties.
A delegation of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is a part of the ruling alliance under the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, led by federal Minister for Information Technology Aminul Haq, also visited the journalists’ camp. Speaking on the occasion, Mr Haq said if the government considered that the PMDA bill was in the interest of journalists, then it should first consult the media persons. He said history had shown that when an attempt was made to ban the media, the consequences were serious against the government.
Addressing the protesters, senior journalists, renowned TV anchors and media workers vowed to resist the government’s move to gag the media through bulldozing the PMDA legislation.
The journalists “condemned” the speaker’s act of preventing reporters from entering the press gallery to cover the president’s address.
PRA president Siddiq Sajid termed the speaker’s act a violation of Article 19 of the Constitution regarding freedom of the press. He alleged that the speaker had violated his own commitment with them as he had agreed to allow them to enter the gallery after an assurance that journalists would not create any disturbance and would only stage a walkout to register their protest in a democratic way.
PRA general secretary Asif Bashir Chaudhry declared that their protest against the speaker’s act would continue and they would devise a strategy in this regard when the next session would be called.
Senior journalist Farooq Aqdas, who has been covering parliament for over three decades, said the speaker had not only insulted the reporters but also the whole parliament.
PFUJ general secretary Nasir Zaidi in his speech said the journalist community had rejected the proposed PMDA because it was meant to stifle the voice of media. He termed it a draconian law and said they would continue to resist it at all cost.
The opposition leaders also visited an adjacent protest camp set up by the sacked employees of the federal government and expressed sympathies with them.
The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and journalists, also expressed its support for the protesting journalists in Pakistan, says a press release issued from Vienna (Austria).
“The IPI stands in solidarity with journalists in Pakistan protesting against the draconian PMDA legislation, which would gravely weaken press freedom in Pakistan,” said IPI deputy director Scott Griffen.
“The PMDA bill would expand state control over media and, therefore, undermine the watchdog role that the press must play in any democracy,” he said, adding: “The IPI urgently repeats its call on the Pakistan government and lawmakers to reject this bill.”
In June, the IPI had written an open letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, urging him to withdraw the proposed bill.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2021