ISLAMABAD, June 8: The government used its numerical superiority in the National Assembly on Friday to block a debate on new media curbs, triggering an opposition protest walkout, although it said it did not mean to curtail press freedom.

The opposition parties had sought the debate on the restrictions and higher penalties ordered for the private electronic media through a presidential ordinance and instructions issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (Pemra) as well as alleged harassment of journalists mainly for their coverage of events relating to the prevailing judicial crisis in the country.

Some opposition members did use a short debate on the admissibility of the motion to denounce the government for what they called draconian restrictions aimed to block the truth from reaching the people before the ruling coalition got the motion rejected in a head count by 76 votes to 50 in the 342-member house.

The opposition sought a recount of its members after several of them arrived in the house from the adjacent lounge while the counting of ruling coalition members was in progress.

But Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain declined to do it, although the government side still seemed to have more members in the house than those of the opposition while President Pervez Musharraf was reported to have come to his chamber in the parliament building to hold separate meetings with groups of ruling coalition members.

The opposition waited for the disposal of a call-attention notice before walking out in protest against the government’s move which marked a bitter end of a comparatively smooth sitting after two days of turmoil over the media curbs.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani, who has been the target of opposition criticism in recent weeks particularly for his statements over judicial crisis and media, appeared to be taking a soft line when he said the government appreciated the concern shown about press freedom in the country.

But he rejected the charges that a curtailment of media freedom was intended and said the present government was credited with making Pakistan what claimed to be “a symbol (of press freedom) not only in the Islamic world but the whole world”.

He claimed that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory (Amendment) Ordinance, whose implementation was suspended on Wednesday night after countrywide protests, was actually meant to counter “some incidents of terrorism and extremism” rather than block the airing of criticism of the government.

He said that ‘misunderstandings’ had been removed in a meeting that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz held with media executives on Wednesday where a joint committee was also set up to review the ordinance.

“There will be no restriction (on the media) from the government side and whatever problem arises will be resolved through dialogue,” he said.

The minister blamed recent interruptions of the programmes of some leading private television channels to technical problems and said the government was trying to introduce DTH (direct to home) technology that will enable people to receive telecasts direct rather than through the present cable operators.

But the opposition seemed little impressed by Mr Durrani’s assertions.

“It is regrettable that the government benches not only oppose a debate (on media problems) but also launch shab khoon (night attacks),” MMA’ leading member Liaquat Baloch said as he led the walkout by his alliance of seven religious parties, which was also joined by the PPP and other opposition groups.

MINISTERS REPRIMANDED: The speaker severely reprimanded government ministers at the start of the sitting for being absent during the question hour, when Narcotics Control Minister Ghaus Bakhsh Khan Maher was not present to answer the first question on the agenda about his ministry and the concerned parliamentary secretary also told the house that he had not been briefed to respond to supplementary questions.

The speaker called the ministers’ attitude so ‘indifferent’ that he had never seen before and asked ruling Pakistan Muslim League president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to take up this matter with the prime minister and in party meetings.

The PML president assured the chair that he would do it, although he said the speaker had full authority to take action in such matters.

“GHOONDA” REMARK: Also during the question hour, Law and Justice Minister Mohammad Wasi Zafar denied media reports that he had called journalists who protested outside the parliament house on Thursday after being barred from entering the building as ‘ghoondas’ (hooligans).

He said he had only stated in the house that ghoondas had infiltrated in the journalists rather than calling the journalists as such. Several opposition members on Thursday quoted the minister as using the remark about journalists.

The journalists, who were barred from parliament on Thursday in retaliation against unprecedented scuffles and slogan-shouting in the press gallery during their protest walkout on Wednesday, were issued fresh entry passes on Friday and earned some praise from the speaker for showing what he called a positive attitude in resolving the matter.

But many journalists complained they still remained without passes while the national budget was to be presented in the house on Saturday.

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