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Clampdown on media challenged

June 06, 2007

ISLAMABAD, June 5: A new ordinance imposing sweeping curbs on the electronic media was challenged in the Supreme Court here on Tuesday and the petition requested the court to declare it against the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

Similar petitions challenging the ordinance were also filed in the Lahore High Court and Sindh High Court.

President Gen Pervez Musharraf on Monday promulgated the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment) Ordinance (2007), empowering the authority to take action on its own against television channels, confiscate equipment of broadcasters and seal the premises without consulting a council of complaints.

Filed by the head of the Human Rights Wing of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Barrister Zafarullah Khan, the petition pleaded that the capricious and mala fide act of the government had demolished the institution of media with the stroke of a pen.

The people of Pakistan were stunned by this ‘shock and awe’ policy of the government, as the last hope of the people to seek free flow of information had been trampled down to stifle people’s movement for independence of the judiciary, the petition said.

The amendments had been made with malice to curb civil liberties, especially the movement of freedom of media and independence of the judiciary, it said.

The federal government, through the law secretary and information secretary, and Pemra, through its chairman, were made respondents in the petition.

The ordinance, it said, had been promulgated in a ‘colourful exercise’ of the authority when there was no need to issue the law as the National Assembly was to meet on June 6.

“The freedom of press is always treated as the most essential part of a democratic system to keep a check on other organs of the government from exceeding its powers,” the petition said.

It contended that the ordinance was against different provisions of the Constitution -- article 4 (citizens to enjoy the protection of law and to be treated in accordance with law), article 8 (law inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights to be void), article 9 (security of person), article 18 (freedom of trade, business or profession), article 23 (provision as to property), article 24 (provision of property rights) and article 175 (establishment and jurisdiction of courts).

The ordinance is also against article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteeing right to fair trial as it is the free media which ensures access to justice safeguarding the fundamental rights and independence of judiciary.

In Lahore, Advocate M.D. Tahir filed a petition against the Pemra Ordinance in the High Court.

The petition prayed that amendments to the ordinance empowering Pemra to cancel licences and confiscate equipment of television channels might be declared unconstitutional.

Mr Tahir contended that the actual situation was entirely different from government’s claims of according full independence to the media. He said everyone should have the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

The petitioner alleged that Pemra was condoning vulgar dances, obscene English movies and indecent Indian films being shown on cable networks, despite being legally bound to ban such programmes.

He prayed that the respondents might be restrained from imposing any kind of ban on the electronic media in future.

In Karachi, a petition has been filed in the Sindh High Court to challenge the validity of the new Pemra Ordinance.

The petition, filed by Advocate Iqbal Kazmi, says that the new provisions placed unreasonable restrictions on the freedom of expression and the media guaranteed under article 19 of the Constitution.

The petition is likely to come up before a division bench on Wednesday.