Opposition and journalists boycott president’s address to the parliament
President Dr Arif Alvi’s address to the parliament on September 13 was marred by protests by the opposition and journalists.
Amid ruckus by the opposition parties inside and reporters outside the National Assembly building, Alvi, in his 45-minute address, highlighted the three-year performance of the government of his party – the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
The opposition parties continued to protest throughout, chanting anti-government slogans and holding up placards decrying the government policies. Outside the parliament, journalists’ organisations were staging a protest against the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) law.
The opposition members boycotted the presidential address after raising their voice to express solidarity with the journalists who were staging a protest sit-in next to the Parliament House to demonstrate their opposition to the proposed authority.
In his address to mark the beginning of the fourth parliamentary year, President Alvi lauded the achievements of the government. He urged the need for tolerance in the country’s politics. He also highlighted the economic challenges facing the country. “Pakistan’s exports increased to $25.3 billion; the Pakistan Stock Exchange broke all past records and became Asia’s best-performing market and the fourth-best in the world. Because of corruption and wrong priorities, we were not only deprived of progress but also left behind in the world on human development indicators,” he said. He added, “In the modern age, national security is not just about borders and soldiers; it is also about food, education and health.” Highlighting the government’s intention to bring about a new media law, he urged strong measures to counter fake news. Such stories, he said, “were the reason behind a country going to war with another.”
The president also mentioned the issue of violence against women.
“In recent days, several incidents of sexual violence against women emerged. Everyone has been saddened by these. I consider taking steps to curb such incidents a national responsibility. Making videos while a [harassment] incident is taking place does not become the Pakistani society. We have to protect women so they can get around freely.”
Talking about electoral reforms, he said, “Electronic Voting Machines are an important tool that will bring transparency, give timely results and keep voter identity secret. The old ballot paper system is also included in this. I am requesting the opposition not to make it a political football. This relates to the country’s future.” President Alvi said the government was also taking steps to include overseas Pakistanis in the political process by introducing I-voting. He said he hoped that all parties would cooperate with the government in this regard.
He condemned what he called ethnic cleansing by Indian forces in Kashmir and the immense injustice to its people. “Pakistan has always desired good relations with its neighbours. India took this as a weakness. In February 2019, India violated our air space so we gave a befitting response and shot down their plane. We returned their pilot. I want to make clear to India they have to stop the oppression in Occupied Kashmir and fulfil the promise of self-determination.”“The address is no more than a ritual. We see the role of the parliament being marginalised. A lack of seriousness is highly visible in the parliament… This time, the most condemnable thing was the locking of the press gallery and barring journalists from the coverage of the session. Such actions are a real threat to democracy. It was an open house and not an in-camera session,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
“Regional stability is under threat from the growing Hindutva influence in India. The world must realise that India is involved in terrorist activities against Pakistan,” he said.
“Pakistan has played a big role for regional peace. It wants Afghanistan’s new Taliban government to unite its people, make forgiveness their policy in the tradition of the holy prophet (peace be upon him) at the time of the conquest of Makkah and [ensure] that there is no threat to a neighbouring country.”
“The world must not abandon the Afghan people; it must help them. Pakistan is trying to provide humanitarian aid to the war-torn country. The world will have to acknowledge that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s advice [regarding Afghanistan] was correct.”
“We look at relations with China with great respect and want to strengthen them… I want to make it clear to India that it will never be successful in its goals and Pak-China friendship will keep growing in strength.”
Addressing the joint session of the parliament at the beginning of the parliamentary year is a constitutional requirement. The address is important in the backdrop of democratic and parliamentary traditions. The opposition often takes it as an opportunity to embarrass the government.
The presidential address to the joint session is mandatory under Article 56(3) of the Constitution. This time it was due since August.
The event turned out to be an unusually sour one this year.
The National Assembly speaker ordered the press gallery locked, allegedly to preempt a strong protest by journalists against the PMDA. Reporters who had been issued special invitation cards from the Presidency to attend the event could not enter the Press Lounge and Press Gallery on the third floor of the Parliament House.
Opposition members of the parliament expressed solidarity with the media bodies camped next to the Parliament House. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz president Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party head Mehmood Khan Achakzai visited the protesters.
PPP parliamentary leader in the Senate, Sherry Rehman said that locking the parliament’s press gallery and denying access to journalists was shameful. “This is the first time that something like this has happened in the history of Pakistan. It was not even done during the martial law era,” she said. “Why is the government feeling so threatened by journalists? The joint session was attended by diplomats and ambassadors of several countries. What message was the government sending? We strongly condemn this action,” she said.
Expressing her support for the protesting journalists outside the Parliament, the PPP parliamentary leader said the government was on a collision course with democracy itself. She said all independent institutions were being challenged or dismantled. “From the constitutional ones to media freedoms, all that we fought so hard for is being rolled back by this regime, seeking to silence dissent to its draconian path,” she said.
The protesting journalists displayed placards against the proposed media law. Some of them sat in the corridors of the Parliament House. Some said that the address was a mere formality.
The Parliamentary Reporters’ Association (PRA) called this a “black day” in the parliamentary history for locking the media gallery. It urged the NA speaker to look into the matter. Speaker Asad Qaisar later claimed that the decision to lock the press gallery had been taken in consultation with the PRA. The PRA was quick to deny this. “I was told by some journalists that there would be confrontation between two groups during the session,” the speaker stated. “The PRA was neither taken into confidence on closing the press gallery nor did any delegation of the association meet the NA speaker to tell him to lock the gallery. We condemn the statement of the NA speaker and demand an investigation into the matter,” a PRA statement read.
“Protests during the joint sessions of the parliament are nothing new. This provides a good to opportunity to a strong opposition to embarrass the government,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) chief. “However, the address is no more now than a ritual. We see the role of the parliament being marginalised. A lack of seriousness is quite visible in the parliament.”
“However, this time, the most condemnable thing was locking of the press gallery and barring journalists from the coverage of the session. Such actions are a real threat to democracy. It was an open house and not an in camera session,” Mehboob says. “A very bad example has been set. This must be protested at the highest level by the media and civil society groups. Only strong voices against this fascism can discourage the government from doing this in future,” he says.
The opposition remained united on the day to protest against the government and its policies. Its members stood outside the parliament under the umbrella the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). However, the alliance has sustained damaged there has been bickering over a nationwide mass-protest for the past several months. The opposition has failed to agree on a common strategy against the government. The PDM seems to have lost its momentum because of different priorities of its member parties.
The PTI continues to press ahead with its confrontational politics. Its leaders insist that these policies, including the PMDA, are steps in the right direction. The party is also confident despite failing to do too well in the recent elections to the cantonment boards.
The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]