To be tabled

May 16, 2021

Long-awaited bills for protection of journalists and to criminalise enforced disappearances are coming to the parliament soon

After a delay of more than a year, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has finally approved the draft of the much-waited and much-desired bill for protection of journalists. The government has also okayed the draft of a bill criminalising forced disappearances in the country. The Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill, and the Forced or Involuntary Disappearance (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill have been approved by the cabinet and will be tabled in the next session of the National Assembly, announced Dr Shireen Mazari, the federal minister for human rights.

Media bodies and human rights groups have welcomed the development urging the government not to delay this matter any further, and to enact these bills to guarantee the rights of the journalists and citizens of the country.

These pieces of legislation aim to ensure the rights of media persons to carry out their journalistic work in conflict-affected areas within the country, without threats, intimidation, harassment or fears of persecution or targetting.

The bill for the protection of the journalists and media professionals has sections on the rights of journalists, professional training and a redressal mechanism for complaints. It upholds “every journalist and media professional’s right to life and security of person”. The bill says journalists should be “allowed to carry out their journalistic work in conflict-affected areas within the country without threats, intimidation, harassment or fear of persecution or targetting.” It also calls for measures by the government to protect media professionals “from all forms of abuse, violence and exploitation at the hands of any person, institution (private or public) or authority.” Additionally, it calls for setting up a Commission for Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals that will comprise the representatives of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the National Press Club and the Ministries of Human Rights and Information and Broadcasting. The commission will be empowered to look into complaints of threats, or acts of torture, killing, violent attacks, arbitrary arrest, arbitrary detention and harassment and identifying cases eligible for compensation from relevant federal and provincial funds.

Furthermore, the bill pushes for a journalist welfare scheme urging media owners to ensure a written safety policy and protocol for journalists. Some details of the bill have not been disclosed yet.

According to media bodies and stakeholders the draft bill prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights was better than the law proposed by the Information Ministry. The bodies have criticised the decision to the two bills and expressed concerns about an “anti-democratic” section in the draft bill. Media rights bodies believe that the purpose of a data protection law should be to protect citizens from the misuse and abuse of personal data, and not to create ways to enable a government’s access and control over the data.

Journalists and their representative bodies have been seeking such protection mechanisms from the government for many years to ensure their safety and independence. First, the Ministry of Human Rights announced this bill in February 2020 after a long negotiations process. However, the government kept delaying this critical demand of the media persons. Earlier, in May last year federal cabinet delayed approval of this bill for necessary adjustments to club it was an earlier bill of similar nature drafted by the Ministry of Information.

Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, the federal minister for information and broadcasting, says the government has full faith in the fundamental, democratic and constitutional right to freedom of expression. However, he said, protection of state interests should be a top priority for all. He also stated that under the new bill journalists could not be asked to reveal their sources. He said the safety of journalists was the responsibility of their employers.

Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. It is understood that to safeguard the right to freedom of expression, in line with Article 19 of the Constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a responsibility of the state. These two rights have been a longstanding demand of the Western human rights bodies. They are also referred in the GSP+ (trade) status agreement between Pakistan and the European Union (EU). Androulla Kaminara, the ambassador of the European Union to Pakistan, says she hopes for a swift and smooth parliamentary process for the prompt adoption of the bills. Bernhard Schlagheck, the German ambassador has also tweeted that he considers the two bills “very important” for “protection of human rights” and expects that these bills would define basic rights for journalists and media professionals and ensure their safety under the law.

The International Federation of Journalists, recently, ranked Pakistan “the fifth most dangerous country for the practice of journalism”. According to the organisation, 138 media practitioners in Pakistan lost their lives in the line of duty between 1990 and 2020.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

To be tabled