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EDITORIAL: The federal cabinet has finally given its go-ahead to “Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill” and “Forced or Involuntary Disappearances (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill, 202l,” drafted by the human rights ministry a while ago. As per the proposed legislation, the government would take all steps “to protect journalists and media professionals from all forms of abuse, violence and exploitation at the hands of any person, institution (private of public) or authority.” A journalists’ welfare scheme is also to be introduced requiring media houses’ owners to sign up to a safety policy and protocols agreement. This is a significant step considering that many journalists, especially those working in the tribal or rural districts of the country, are frequently subjected to harassment, abduction and even murder for what they write or broadcast.

In fact, as reported by a Pakistan-based watchdog, Freedom Network, some 148 incidents of attack and rights violations against journalists happened during the last one year alone, i.e., between May 3, 2020 and April 20 of this year. If that is not bad enough, statistics collected by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) for the previous decade show an appalling figure of 138 journalists killed in the line of duty. That has brought Pakistan the unsavoury distinction of being the fifth most dangerous country for media professionals. The environment being what it is, both bills have been widely welcomed, attracting also the attention of international observers of the scene. Whereas only a few days ago the European Union had expressed “deep concern” over the lack of freedom of the press and violence against journalists, EU Ambassador to Pakistan has now hailed the two bills for being in line with GSP+ obligations of Pakistan. Adding his comments, the German Ambassador termed the proposed legislation “very important” for the protection of human rights. The draft laws, though, have their share of sceptics. They point out that the problem is not dearth of laws but the system’s failure to implement the existing ones. Article 19 of the Constitution, for instance, stipulates that “every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law”, while Article 9 states that “no person shall be deprived of life or liberty, save in accordance with law.” Yet media professionals are routinely targeted for doing their duty.

The government deserves to be commended for initiating good-intentioned legislation. Aware of the implementation difficulties the human rights ministry has proposed setting up of a seven-member commission comprising media representatives with wide-ranging powers to investigate and redress complaints of threats, harassment, kidnappings and any violent attack or killing. It is pertinent to recall, however, that in the past two judicial commissions were formed to investigate the incidents involving violence and murder of journalists, but their reports did not see the light of day, nor was anyone held to account. Hopefully, this time things will be different. That means the new commission is to be enabled to hold its proceedings in a transparent manner, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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