09/25/2021

“A Long-Awaited Step” – How a Provincial Law on the Protection of Journalists is Paving a New Path in Pakistan

A new law protecting the rights and sources of journalists in Sindh has been hailed as a boon for press freedom in the province by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), its partner Freedom Network (FN), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), its affiliate, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), and several other media and rights networks. 

The Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners Act, 2021 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Act’) was recently passed by the Sindh Assembly. It was first passed by the Assembly on May 28, However, the bill was returned by the Sindh Governor, Imran Ismail, without a signature to the legislature on June 20, as he had objected to some features of the proposed law and therefore refused to give his assent. However, after the second passage of the bill by the Sindh Assembly, it has finally been enacted and the PTI governor has had to sign it

The IFJ has ranked Pakistan as the 5th most dangerous place for journalism in the world. Countless journalists based in Sindh, recent ones being the deceased Aziz Memon and Ajay Lalwani, have paid the price for being intrepid in their line of work. One can only hope that this Act, which was drafted in collaboration with several journalists’ unions, helps put an end to impunity for crimes against media practitioners.

A Brief Overview of the Law

The Act links the protection of journalists to the constitutional right of free speech, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan. It covers harassment of all kinds, including sexual harassment. It provides protections to freelancers as well as journalists working in newsrooms, and media practitioners, comprising individuals “engaged in the collection, processing, and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication, including cameraperson and photographers, technical supporting staff, drivers and interpreters, editors, translators, publishers, broadcasters, printers, and distributors.” Moreover, the Act will obligate the Sindh government to offer free legal aid to aggrieved journalists who cannot afford a lawyer.

One of the standout features of the Act is that it envisions the creation of an independent and robust ‘Sindh Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners’ (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Commission’), constituted under Section 8. The Commission will be operating autonomously, and has been mandated to regulate its own procedures and formulate its own rules and regulations under Section 13(a). The Commission is purported to proactively protect journalists under the law, and would include not only government duty bearers but also key media stakeholders, including representation from the PFUJ, the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), the Sindh Human Rights Commission, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). 

As the Act was drafted in consultation with journalist representative organisations, including the Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) and PFUJ, it also empowers this Commission to produce an annual report on the ‘State of Safety and Security of Journalists and Media Practitioners in the Province of Sindh.’

Naimat Khan, a correspondent working at Arab News, observes that the objections of the Sindh Governor of there being no checks and balances over the autonomous Commission, and the lack of audits to this effect, were rightly rubbished by the journalist fraternity: “Every autonomous body is properly audited and the same will be done in case of the Commission. The other concern regarding there being no checks and balances was against the very spirit of the law and Commision.” Sindh-based journalists such as Naimat believe that if the Commision were to be heavily regulated by the government, there would have been no need for its existence to begin with. “Its purpose is to protect journalists from harassment and pressure primarily from the government and state institutions themselves; this concern reveals a lot about the government’s own affairs in Pakistan.”

According to journalist Gibran Ashraf, “The objections by the Sindh Governor over contradictory language, and questionable financial regulation and audit of funds, may be valid but at this point appear to be just delaying tactics to allow the centre to win bragging rights for moving first on a bill. It is really unfortunate that the political parties ruling our country cannot forgo their unchaste politicking for a good and integral cause.”

Gibran opines that one aspect which remains concerning is how the Commission will ensure that journalists are not targeted through different tactics employed against them, be it en masse layoffs and furloughs, or threats at the individual and organisational level. “It remains to be seen what kind of punishments are prescribed, which prove to be a deterrent.”

Journalist Sindhu Abbasi makes an important observation: “While the Act looks good on paper, it remains to be seen how women journalists will fare under it in the future.” 

Some recommendations to improve the bill have been suggested by RSF and FN, such as creating the position of an independent special prosecutor, better representation of journalists in the Commission, and extending the protection to the families of the targeted journalists as and when required. 

Challenges for Women in Media

RSF and the FN pointed out that the Act does not contain any provision to address the gender imbalance in the Pakistani media. 

Journalism remains an increasingly precarious profession for women in Pakistan; female journalists face considerably more danger in the form of double censorship as compared to men in the field. The risky nature of the profession makes them susceptible to gender-based discrimination and violence. There have been several recent examples of women journalists experiencing the worst forms of coordinated online attacks and threats of harm, and they are constantly expected to tolerate patriarchal norms and open misogyny within and outside of newsrooms.

“Women journalists are constantly harassed on social media in particular,” Sindhu adds, as she mentions the recent examples of women journalists being abused in online spaces. 

“Whether it is Ailia Zehra bearing the brunt of misogynistic remarks, or Asma Shirazi facing an organized disinformation campaign, we see women journalists constantly being abused for dissent,” Sindhu adds. 

Like RSF and the FN, Sindhu also points out that the Act does not provide quotas for ensuring diversity in the Commission. “No provision has been made specifically for women or minorities in Pakistan. It is important to take into account the perspectives, experiences and concerns of women and minority groups, as they experience an increasing amount of hostility on the basis of their identity, and remain precarious in Pakistan. Their security is always at stake,” she adds. 

According to Gibran, this concern was raised by an MPA but it was ultimately rejected. “I feel that is not just a major opportunity missed but a blatant mistake, particularly if the commission is supposed to take up harassment cases. Remember that a growing number of newsrooms and media organizations now include a significant number of women among their ranks.”

These concerns regarding the Act not ensuring diversity being a major oversight are absolutely valid, especially considering the previous record of the Sindh Assembly in regards to enacting progressive legislation on gender rights that leave a lot to be desired in terms of implementation, as pointed out by Sindhu. A discussion on political representation is important given the current state of the media industry and how it does not ensure parity in any respect. Last year, a group of women journalists issued a hard-hitting statement against government-affiliated social media accounts and supporters. It is high time that this discussion is reflected in legislation and policies that are purportedly introduced for the benefit and safety of journalists from all walks of life.

“A Good Law”

Nevertheless, Gibran adds, “This bill is a long-awaited step in the right direction. So many journalists have suffered in this province over the years with at least 30 falling in the line of duty since 1994. While it is not perfect by any means, the fact that journalists were involved in the drafting process of the law speaks volumes. It shows that after years of facing physical, mental and economic violence, from all quarters really, journalists are finally being heard.”

The Secretary General of Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), Owais Aslam Ali, feels similarly, and has also welcomed the Act as a positive step. It must be noted here that a bill on the rights of journalists was presented earlier in Pakistan’s National Assembly, and then sent to the Human Rights Committee for consideration. PPF played a leading role in maintaining momentum for the passage of legislation on journalists’ protection in Pakistan at the federal level, following the presentation in February 2020 of the draft Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill 2020 in the federal cabinet by Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari. 

Owais adds, “The process initiated by PPF, culminating in the presentation of these bills at the national and provincial level, included a review of the draft bill by international experts to bring it in line with international practices; organising a series of consultative sessions with editors, journalists, lawyers and human right practitioners; and the publication of a policy paper on the draft with specific clause-wise recommendations on improving the draft bill.” This was followed by lobbying efforts on part of PPF with leaders of political parties at national and provincial levels, which included meetings with the President of Pakistan, ministers, senators, and members of the national and provincial assemblies. 

Owais expresses appreciation for the support PPF received from the Sindh Government. He remarks, “The enactment of the law is an important first step to ending impunity for crimes against media practitioners. If the Commission is effective, it can start monitoring follow-up of violent crimes against media practitioners.” With that, Owais remarks that it will take time to change the entrenched practice of burying cases of violence against journalists by either not investigating them or conducting deeply flawed investigations and prosecutions. 

Any change will take time and will be an evolutionary process. Other weaknesses may come to light while implementing the law and they will need to be addressed.  The optimistic analysis is that a good law has been passed and we need to be vigilant to ensure that it is implemented in letter and spirit,” Owais states. He also points out that the Act recognises journalists’ right to professional privacy and undertakes to implement the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. 

Troubling Developments in Pakistan

However, the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) has been proposed recently, which would entail all segments of the media coming under state control. The Government of Pakistan aims for this single body to be solely responsible for regulating print, electronic and digital media. Hence, this body will have unfettered powers to coerce independent media organisations to do its bidding; otherwise it will take punitive measures to coerce media bodies and journalists into silence. Various media and civil society organizations such as PFUJ, HRCP, Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA), Asma Jahangir’s AGHS, Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP), FN, Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA), Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) and Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) have rejected this move by the government to curtail freedom of expression in Pakistan en masse. 

Moreover, in Punjab, PFUJ and the Lahore-based Joint Action Committee (JAC) recently rejected the amended Punjab Assembly Privileges Bill 2021 that was unanimously adopted by all parliamentary parties – including, ironically, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – in the Punjab Assembly. Protests have been held across the country against this controversial law that would  allow the House’s handpicked “judicial committee” to penalise, in a summary trial, any journalist or bureaucrat for breach of a privilege of the house or any of its committee or member. The bill, that clumps journalists and bureaucrats together and has been duly criticised by both segments, was passed even though the Governor of Punjab, Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, himself raised objections that it was against the spirit of Article 66(3): Privileges of members etc, and Article 10-A: Right to Fair Trial of the Constitution of Pakistan.

This illustrates that the situation in Pakistan for journalists remains far from ideal, and underscores that journalists remain routinely threatened not only in person but also online. In regards to Sindh, Gibran notes that the harassment remains rampant by varying forces, and that Sindh has also uniquely seen the economic murder of journalists, so to speak, with mass layoffs in major publications and channels, with others pursuing the cruel policy of continuing to operate without paying staff for months on end, thereby pushing them deeper into the cycle of poverty and despair.

Gibran elaborates, “Sindh has seen some of the most brutal cases of violence against journalists, including the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. I have personally lost colleagues and friends including Wali Khan Babar and Arif Khan. Other colleagues too faced violence from different quarters. I have faced my share of threats and intimidation. Some of my colleagues have reported being harassed; unfortunately, some by coworkers, others by state entities. So some of the provisions in the bill regarding harassment, protecting journalists from state and non-state entities – especially in the online and digital space – are very welcome.”

Gibran thinks that the inclusion of journalist unions and bodies, along with the Sindh Human Rights Commission, the key legal body of the province, the government, and agencies, will at least offer a platform to discuss what he considers to be thorny issues. “That the state will bear expenses for legally protecting journalists is also welcome. If implemented in its true spirit, the bill can potentially change the atmosphere in which journalists operate in the province.” With that, Gibran comments that the enactment of laws along similar lines across the country could herald a new era for journalism, though it remains to be seen how and when the bill can be implemented, and what and how the Commission, as described in the bill, sets about accomplishing its mission. 

“The implementation phase has been the graveyard for a lot of good legislation in Pakistan and it is of great concern how this law will fare through that period, or will we discover again, painfully, that all good intentions by political entities evaporate once a bill graduates from the assembly and goes out into the gazetted world as an act of law.”

Sindh Paving the Way

Naimat Khan, a correspondent at Arab News, states that the Sindh law is mostly similar to the federal law but two things make it better: firstly, the consultation and wide participation of journalists and journalist bodies in the process of its drafting and even at the level of discussion; and secondly, the formation of the Commision. He reminds us that Sindh is not a separate entity from Pakistan. “State censorship of journalists exists across Pakistan.” But Naimat remarks that in the rest of Sindh, especially the upper parts of the province, journalists have been attacked, murdered and booked for their reporting. According to a report by Imdad Soomro in The News, some 50 journalists were booked in fake cases, including under terrorism charges, during the last couple of years. “Similarly we see little progress in the case of Aziz Memon who was allegedly killed by the ruling party leader. So, if the bill brings any positive results in rural Sindh and small cities where political forces are involved in censorship and attacks on journalists mostly, it will become a true success.” Though one knows that its implementation will be the real test that determines the sincerity of the Sindh government in the long run.

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