EDITORIAL: The need to end impunity for those who subject journalists to harassment, abduction, beatings, even murder is underscored by the ranking Pakistan gets from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) as the fifth most dangerous country for media persons. Some encouraging developments inspire hope for betterment. The federal government recently introduced two draft laws in the National Assembly entitled “Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill” and “Forced or Involuntary Disappearances (Criminal Law Amendment Bill)” prepared by the human rights and law ministries, that are being deliberated upon by the relevant house committee. Meanwhile, the Sindh government has passed the “Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Bill, 2021.” That may come across as duplication of effort, but not so considering that law and order is a provincial subject. Besides, cases of violence and harassment are quite common in that province. According to a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, last year two journalists were abducted but released while a third one was killed. And in Sukkur alone, within a span of 18 months as many as 25 FIRs were registered against various journalists.
Formulated in the light of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists with emphasis on combating impunity, the new law contains several important provisions. One of its clauses reads: “no person or institution, whether private or public, shall engage in any act that violates or threatens the right to life and security of any journalist or media practitioner.” Sceptics though are quick to point out that Article 9 of the Constitution already stipulates that “no person shall be deprived of life or liberty, save in accordance with law.” The present legislation, however, also deals with specific issues confronting journalists, promising to ensure that “counter terrorism” or “security laws” are not arbitrarily used to hinder journalists’ work. It being a responsibility of investigative journalists to protect their sources of information, there is the declaration that “no government official, agency or institution will force, induce, compel, coerce, or threaten any journalist or other media practitioner to disclose the identity of the professional sources of information.” As important as these details are, the real challenge is in implementation.
It is to be overseen by a commission comprising representatives of government, civil society and different media organisations: Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, and Pakistan Broadcasters Association. The commission head is to be former high court judge or a retired BPS-20 civil servant with demonstrable knowledge of, or practical experience in matters relating to law, public administration and human rights. Besides looking into complaints regarding acts of harassment, sexual harassment, violence and threats of violence, the commission would also have power to take suo motu notice of any incident of violence involving journalists or other media professionals. All this looks great on paper, only time will tell if the outcome of this commission’s labours would be any different from two previous judicial commissions set up to probe two incidents of violence and murder involving journalists. Their reports were not made public. Nor was anyone held to account.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021