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EDITORIAL: That the President of Pakistan is the head of state but not of the executive is a fact. That he represents the nation but does not rule the nation is also a fact. In other words, he’s only the symbol of the nation. It is important to note that the President’s address to a joint sitting of parliament—a constitutional requirement—is keenly watched as it is expected to outline the government’s policy agenda and stand on issues in a somewhat objective manner. Unfortunately, however, President Dr Arif Alvi didn’t break any news in his address to a joint sitting of parliament the other day. He just recounted and recounted what the government spokespersons keep claiming all along; he was literally following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the late Mamnoon Husain, who was always full of excessive praise for the then government of PML-N, to say the least. But what would differentiate Dr Alvi’s address from the previous practice was that this time around there was nobody in the Press Gallery of Parliament to make notes during his pro-governmment well-worded and forcefully articulated speech. The parliamentary reporters were not in the Press Gallery; they were uneasily squatted in the corridors with their pens inside their breast pockets. The Press Gallery was locked out and they had nothing to report. In his speech, President Arif Alvi acknowledged the role of media in curbing the spread of coronavirus. But as he glanced towards the Press Gallery he was visibly surprised to see that nobody was present there. Who had ordered the lockout of the Press Gallery? Initially, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry feigned ignorance. He, however, later added: “it might have been closed by the Speaker because of coronavirus”. In the past also the Press Gallery would become vacant when reporters would stage walkouts to protest on some issues, but ministers would rush to them to persuade them to return to the Press Gallery. The reporters had threatened to boycott the presidential address as part of their protest against the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). But it seems some smart aleck had ordered the closure of Press Gallery to pre-empt media protest against the planned government step.

The President’s address to a joint sitting of parliament is watched, among others, by a galaxy of guests, including the military top brass and foreign guests. Unfortunately, the incident has transmitted to the people in Pakistan and abroad an unsavoury message: an attempt is being made to turn parliament into a dysfunctional liability on the national exchequer. And the need for lawmaking is met by issuance of ordinances.

To conclude, it is widely believed that the Speaker of the National Assembly was behind the Press Gallery closure. He should, therefore, share the blame for this undemocratic and unparliamentary act. He seems to have compromised his neutrality in negation of his oath of office.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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