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ISLAMABAD: The PTI government is hopeful that two bills - Elections (Amendment) Bill 2021 and Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Bill 2021 - will sail through the joint session of Parliament following the announcement of the 9-party Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to boycott the joint sitting.

In the 342-seat National Assembly, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led ruling coalition has 178 seats and claims it has the support of two of the four independent Members of the National Assembly (MNAs). In the 100-seat Senate whose present strength is 99, the PTI-led coalition has 47 seats while opposition has 52 seats.

In a joint sitting the ruling coalition has 225 seats plus two independents, a total of 227 seats - while opposition has a total parliamentary strength of 214 seats: 52 seats in Senate (with non-PDM member PPP having 21 seats and ANP with two seats) and 160 seats in National Assembly (with PPP having 56 seats and ANP one seat) plus two independents - total 162.

However, PDM's strength in Parliament (minus PPP and ANP) is 134 seats. But both PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) and ANP (Awami national Party) have rejected the two bills and announced to support the protest of media.

PPP leader Nayyar Hussain Bokhari and ANP Spokesperson Zahid Khan confirmed that both the parties would fully support media's protest.

Requesting anonymity, a PTI senator told Business Recorder that the government is not facing any challenge to pass the bills in terms of numbers. However, it was facing 'external pressures' -- from the opposition parties and the media -- against these bills, the insider said.

PDM parties are supporting the stance of Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) against the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and internet voting (i-voting-for overseas Pakistanis) proposed in Elections (Amendment) Bill 2021.

Govt describes ECP objections on EVMs as ‘one-sided’

"Constitutionally and legally, no one can challenge the Parliament's authority to make laws. The challenge comes from outside the Parliament. But, unless, the media and opposition join hands to exert enormous pressure on the government, it would not backtrack from the two bills," the senator said.

PTI sources said the government is not constitutionally bound to include media or ECP's input in the two bills.

"In the Constitution of Pakistan or even in election laws, there is no clause that binds the government or Parliament to take anybody into confidence on any bill. The stakeholders cannot complain of being left out in any legislation. Its Parliament's job to legislate-and whether it considers stakeholders input in the process or not is entirely up to Parliament," the source said.

However, PTI leaders admit that things can get problematic if superior courts are moved against the two bills.

Speaking to Business Recorder, PDM spokesperson Hafiz Hamdullah said that the alliance of opposition parties had already rejected both the bills and also decided to boycott the joint sitting of Parliament being held on Monday.

Regarding the absence of opposition in joint session that would allow government to easily get the bills passed, Hamdullah said, "There is no point in attending joint session when we have already rejected the bills. It is PDM's decision not to be part of the session that would take up these controversial bills."

He further maintained that the government can get both the bills passed even if opposition attends the joint session.

"We have decided to give the government a tough time outside the parliament," he said.

Asked whether the PDM would support the media's protest, the PDM leader said, "We extend our wholehearted support to our media brethren. The PDM would actively support them."

PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb also confirmed that her party would participate in the protest to show solidarity with the journalist fraternity.

Senate panel rejects use of EVMs, i-voting

Representatives of journalists' bodies have planned protests against PMDA bill outside Parliament on Monday (tomorrow) saying that the controversial bill would strangulate media's freedom of expression by imposing curbs on independent journalism.

"We'll also register our protest against the election bill," she added.

President Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) Shahzada Zulfiqar said the entire media of Pakistan is united against PMDA Bill 2021. "We will not sit in peace until the government withdraws this bill," he said.

He said the journalists would welcome all those political parties that support media's struggle against the controversial bill.

Zulfiqar said that the journalists would not only continue their protests but also seek legal remedies-moving superior courts against the controversial bill. "We would exhaust every forum for the protection of our rights. We would not let this government snatch our hard-earned freedom," he said.

Zulfiqar said the proposal to nominate a Grade-22 bureaucrat to head the PMDA was tantamount to formalising a regime of coercive censorship.

He said that the proposed establishment of media tribunals would be empowered to hand punishments of up to three years in jail and 25 million rupees in fines to content producers for violating the repressive new provisions. "The proposed ordinance is nothing less than imposing 'media martial law," he added.

A senior official of Islamabad Police, who declined to be named, said that the protest was the democratic right of every citizen, but no one will be allowed to take the law into his/her hand.

"All possible measures will be taken to maintain law and order. The law will take its course if someone crosses the redline," he added.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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