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Tuesday May 28, 2024

Amendment to Official Secrets Act: Govt left red-faced as Senators bitterly oppose bill

Chairman refers matter to standing committee; house erupts into noisy protest by members of ruling alliance, Opposition

By Our Correspondent
August 03, 2023
An inside view of the Senate hall. — APP/ File
An inside view of the Senate hall. — APP/ File

ISLAMABAD: After fierce opposition from parliamentarians, Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani Wednesday referred the Official Secrets (Amendment) Bill 2023 to the relevant standing committee for debate in order to reach consensus on the matter.

A day earlier, the outgoing government got the bill adopted by the National Assembly in a bid to empower intelligence agencies, which would be able to raid and detain any citizen, even under suspicion of them breaching the law.

On behalf of Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar moved the bill in the House, triggering noisy protest from members on both sides of the divide, with loud chants of ‘no, no and the bill is rejected’. Some senators even contended that instead of taking up legislative business, the House should have first debated the recent Bajaur terrorist attack.

The bill proposes a penalty on a citizen with a prison term of three years for disclosing the “identity of the members of the intelligence agencies or the informants or sources”.

Sensing the mood, Sanjrani immediately referred the bill to the committee concerned, whereas senators demanded him put the bill to vote as they had clear intention to reject it. Among those, who led the protest, included ex-chairman Senate and PPP stalwart Mian Raza Rabbani, the National Party Senator Tahir Bizenjo, JUIF Senators Karmran Murtaza, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haider and Maulana Attaur Rehman.

Sanjrani retorted to their demand by saying that he would put the bill to vote when the government would bring it for adoption. It was an eventful and tough day for the government, which would bow out within next few days, as some questioned the haste with which it wanted to do legislation and suggested a strong government after elections should to do the needful.

Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s Afnanullah Khan also raised voice against the proposed amendments to the Official Secrets Act 1923.

The treasury legislators led the opposition to mainly to two proposed pieces of legislation — the Higher Education Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences and Technology, Islamabad (Amendment) Bill, 2023 — ignoring the fact the Minister for Education Rana Tanveer Hussain strongly supported their passage.

At one point when he argued for the immediate passage of bills, Senator Mushtaq Ahmad of the JI pointed out the past week’s legislative process had turned the House into a ‘joke’ globally as well as on the social media.

He wondered, “why a floodgate of legislations has been opened in the government’s last days, which should not have done this when few days have left in its tenure. There should be some quality legislation after holding a debate on the bills”. He grilled the government and noted when the National Assembly would approve charter for 25 universities in a day, then ‘what would people say about you’.

However, both these bills were referred to the standing committee concerned after Rabbani and Senator Mushtaq, some other members showed their willingness to introduce amendments to these bills. Rabbani, in his strong worded criticism, said that new traditions were being laid down.

He remarked, “I feel that I have not been sent in the Senate but a princely state where I am blindfolded, handcuffed and I parrot whatever the ministers say or whatever comes after being passed by the cabinet. My right as an individual member to move an amendment against a law according to my conscience and my dictate is being taken away from me for the last 10 days”.

Rabbani emphasised that he belonged to the legacy of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had torn up a resolution at the UN Security Council by saying ‘I am wasting my time’. And, then to the surprise of many, he tore down a copy of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences and Technology, Islamabad (Amendment) Bill amid the thumping of desks from some members.

He complained his rights as an individual parliamentarian were being ‘mauled and that his proposed amendments to the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences and Technology, Islamabad (Amendment) Bill were not circulated, adding the senators’ right to deliberate and vote on amendments should not be taken away’.

JUIF’s Senator Kamran Murtaza also remarked, “we are setting bad precedents”. The house adopted The Pakistan Civil Aviation Bill, 2023, [The Pakistan Air Safety Investigations Bill, 2023 and [The Pakistan Sovereign Wealth Fund Bill, 2023 and [The National Commission for Human Development (Amendment) Bill, 2023. He complained that parliamentarians were not being provided copies of draft bills.

Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali protested the introduction and passage of the bill in haste on the same day even without provision of its copies to members. However, copies of the bill in the English language were distributed among the members immediately. Chitrali said that it was also a violation of the Constitution that copies of the bill in Urdu language were not distributed and the same has been happening for the last few days.

Addressing the upper house of parliament, Finance Minister Senator Ishaq Dar said: “We need to introspect as to how terrorism is again on the rise in Pakistan.”

Terrorism, he added, should be eliminated to make Pakistan a cradle of peace.

The financial czar also questioned as to who had allowed terrorists to settle again in Pakistan. He urged Chairman Sanjrani to arrange a detailed in-camera briefing from the interior ministry so that a comprehensive and effective plan could be chalked out to fight terrorism.

PPP leader and former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said the National Security Committee should brief the house over the security situation in the country. He said joint efforts were needed to fully defeat the menace of terrorism.

On his part, Senator Haji Hidayatullah said perpetrators of the Bajaur terrorist attack should be taken to task to set an example.

Senator Dost Muhammad Khan demanded the federal government announce a compensation package for the victims of the Bajaur incident. At this, the finance minister promised to take up the matter with the prime minister and at the cabinet level.

Jamaat-e-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmad said it was a responsibility of the federal and provincial authorities as well as the security agencies to protect the life and liberty of citizens. He also demanded that the government should announce compensation for the victims of the Bajaur incident. He proposed that an in-camera session of parliament should be held to discuss the matter and to evolve a comprehensive strategy to fight terrorism.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly Wednesday passed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and the Press Council of Pakistan (Amendment) Bill, 2023 among a total of 12 bills with a majority vote.

Minister for Information and Broadcasting moved amendments to the PEMRA (Amendment) Bill, 2023 which were passed by the House. She proposed amendment to clause 2, following new sub clause should be added, which says “the Authority shall ensure fair, transparent and independent rating to the broadcasters for their TV channels in addition to the clause” which provides that the Authority would ensure timely payment of salary to the electronic media who are its licensee, not later than two months.

A licensee of the Authority shall comply with all decisions and orders of the Authority and the Council of Complaints for payment of outstanding salaries to its employees. In case of non-compliance by the licensee, the Authority or, as the case may be, the Council of Complaints shall write to the division or department of the federal government or, as the case may be, the provincial government to which stands allocated the business in this behalf to stop release of TV or radio commercials to the licensee till the payment of pending salaries to its employees.

According to an amendment, “the Authority by registering rating companies shall ensure that a fair, transparent, and independent forums shall issue rating to the licensees’’.

The authority would also ensure that during a regular programme a continuous break for advertising shall not exceed for five minutes and duration between two such successive breaks shall not be less than ten minutes and that content of all channel available on electronic media, including logo and name, etc. shall not vary, alter, substitute, tempered on digital media or any other similar forum.

The bill says that disinformation means verifiably false, misleading, manipulated, created or fabricated information which is disseminated or shared with the intent to cause harm to the reputation of or to harass.

Misinformation means verifiable false content or information that is unintentionally disseminated or shared.

The Authority or, as the case may be, the chairman, after the licensee has been given reasonable opportunity to show cause, impose fine up to one million rupees on a licensee who contravenes any of the provisions of this ordinance or the rules or regulations or the code of conduct or the terms and conditions of the licence. Provided that in case of severe violations, the Authority may impose a fine up to ten million rupees on the licensee. Other government bills which were passed on Wednesday included Apostille Bill 2023, The Gas Theft Control and Recovery Amendment Bill 2023 and the Zakat and Ushr Amendment Bill 2023. The House also passed private member bills as supplementary agenda. These Quaid-e-Azam Institute of Management Sciences Sargodha Bill 2023, The Akhuwat Institute Kasur Bill 2023, Islamabad University of Health Sciences and Emerging Technologies Bill 2023, The Falcon University of Sciences and Technology Bill, 2023, The Kings Institute of Higher Education Bill 2023 and The North Institute Bill 2023 and Public Institute of Science, Art and Technology Bill, 2023.