A provincial assembly has passed a bill providing for summary trials of journalists, bureaucrats
The provincial assembly recently passed the Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Act 2021, sending a wave of concern among journalists, bureaucrats and the civil society. Media activists, press clubs and unions of journalists have since been protesting against this law, calling it a conspiracy against the freedom of expression.
The passage of the law and the later conciliatory statements by the speaker indicate that the legislation was prepared and passed in haste and without any serious deliberation.
Makhdoom Usman Mehmood of the Pakistan Peoples Party moved the bill as a private member. It also carried the names of some Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz members as sponsors. The bill was passed unanimously despite not being featured on the order of the day.
Press clubs and unions of journalists, including the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and other bodies have strongly criticised the bill.
Pakistan Press Foundation secretary Owais Aslam Ali says, “The law is an attempt to make the media a puppet. Already, the media in Pakistan is under pressure. There are so many state institutions being used to control the media. In such a situation, this bill was not needed. Now, any journalist who reports news about any member of the Punjab Assembly can be arrested and punished by the speaker or a committee.”
“It is shocking that a PPP member tabled the bill after the PPP introduced the Protection of Journalists Bill 2021 in the Sindh Assembly to protect newspersons and their sources.”
Clause 1 of the schedule, given at the end of the bill states: “Using criminal force to, or obstructing, assaulting, threatening or insulting any Member or an Officer of the Assembly in the discharge of their official duty may lead to six months’ imprisonment or a Rs 10,000 fine or both.”
Talking to The News on Sunday, Malik Muhammad Ahmad Khan, an MPA and PML-N Punjab vice-president said PA officials were included after some media people exchanged harsh words with some of them. “The clause has been amended and assembly officials have been omitted from it,” he said.
Clause 2 of the schedule reads: “Contravention of the provisions of the Rules of Procedure of Provincial Assembly of the Punjab, 1997, will incur a Rs 10,000 fine.”
Clause 3 of the schedule says, “Breach of any of the privileges as provided in Section 16, or Section 17 or Section 18, as the case may be. It may lead to imprisonment of either description for three months, or a fine of ten thousand rupees, or both.” This clause indirectly targets the media and the bureaucracy.
Coming to the media related clauses, the schedule in its Clause 6 reads: “Willfully publishing a false or perverted report of a debate or proceedings of the Assembly or a Committee or willfully misrepresenting a speech made by a Member before the Assembly or a Committee may lead to imprisonment for three months or a Rs 10,000 fine or both.” As a result, writing and publishing a commentary about PA’s proceedings will be a challenge.
Clause 7 says, “Willfully publishing a report of a debate or proceedings of the Assembly or a Committee the publication of which has been prohibited or expunged by the Presiding Officer may amount to three months’ imprisonment or a fine of Rs 10,000 or both.” The restriction is apparently pointless as PA proceedings frequently go on air live. The speaker then expunges parts of it after they have been broadcast/telecast. The relevant news persons are sensitive to the rules in any case so that newspapers never publish the expunged remarks.
Following protests by journalists’ bodies, Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi issued a notification omitting entries 6, 7 and 10 of the Act. The notification says the speaker exercised powers conferred upon him under Section 21 of the PunabPrivileges Act 1972. However, constitutional experts say the speaker cannot abrogate any entry or clause without the approval of the House.
Entry 8 says, “Casting or publishing any reflection upon the character or conduct of the Presiding Officer or any imputation of partiality against him in the discharge of his duties may lead to imprisonment of either description for three months, or a fine of twenty thousand rupees, or both.” This is ridiculous as almost every presiding officer faces the accusation of being partial. Apparently, this entry is meant to be used against opposition members.
Entry 9 of the schedule says, “Making or publishing a maliciously false, scandalous, defamatory or derogatory statement concerning any Member in respect of his conduct as a Member or an Officer of the Assembly will lead to imprisonment of either description for three months, or a fine of ten thousand rupees, or both.” Given that the law of libel empowers every citizen to file a defamation case against anybody, this entry was totally unnecessary.
To stopping the media from educating the people about what’s cooking in the PA in terms of legislation or budgetary documents, there is Entry 10 of the schedule. It reads: “Printing of a copy of any Act or Ordinance or of any report, paper, minutes or notes of proceedings of the Assembly or a Committee, which purports to have been printed by or under the authority of the Assembly or any Committee but which in fact has not been so printed or the tendering in evidence of any such copy as aforesaid will lead to imprisonment of either description for three months, or a fine of ten thousand rupees, or both.” This entry puts paid to all investigative journalism.
The law seems to have been made to further empower the speaker. Entry 12 reads: “Willful failure or refusal to obey any order of the Judicial Committee under this Act, or any order of the Presiding Officer or any Member or Officer of the Assembly which is duly made under this Act will lead to imprisonment of either description for three months, or a fine of ten thousand rupees, or both.”
The law empowers the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest any person to prevent them from acting in any manner in breach of privileges within the precincts of the assembly.
The arrests can be made without any warrant, at any place within the “precincts of the Assembly”, that has been defined as the assembly’s courtyard, hall, lobbies, press galleries, rooms etc.
The law also allows for the use of “reasonable force as may be necessary” when making the arrests. Now, the speaker “can in writing direct the arrest and detention in custody” of a journalist, bureaucrat and/ or any lawmaker.
The law further empowers the speaker to form a Judicial Committee of the assembly to try offences and award punishments and the sentence passed by the committee that will enjoy magisterial powers.
Following protests by journalists, Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi issued a notification on July 4. The notice says, “The Entries 6, 7 and 10 shall be omitted and the schedule will be renumbered.” The notification states that the speaker exercised powers conferred upon him under Section 21 of the Punjab Privileges Act 1972. Constitutional experts say that the speaker cannot abrogate any entry or clause from a law without approval of the House. In a media statement, Elahi said he held journalists in great esteem. He said the clauses that had sparked controversy, had been removed from the bill. However, journalists are not happy. Most of them see the action as an eyewash.
MPA Khan said, “We wanted better working in standing committees. We wanted a law in this regard. The bill was tabled and passed unanimously. The PML-N raised questions on the media-related clauses before anybody including the media did.”
“Now the objectionable clauses, including those about privilege of the assembly officials have been removed. If somebody publishes a concocted story against any of the legislators what can be done against them?.”
Abid Saqi, a senior lawyer and human rights activists, says, “The bill clashes with Article 8 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Article 8 of the constitution of Pakistan reads: ‘Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights to be void. (1) Any law, or any custom or usage having the force of law, in so far as it is inconsistent with the rights conferred by this Chapter, shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void.’”
Saqi says the law should be abrogated by those who passed it. Else, a court will nullify it if somebody files a petition.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher