BRIEFLY, it appeared there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Pakistan’s beleaguered journalist community. However, the outcome of the cabinet’s deliberations on the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill, drafted by the human rights ministry, has been discouraging. For it seems the government representatives have decided to club this comprehensive effort to create an enabling environment for an independent media with another media-related bill previously drafted by the information ministry. Such a conflation, one may be sure, is likely to culminate in a watered-down piece of legislation.
The bill drawn up by the human rights ministry is worth adopting on its own for several reasons; a few are particularly worth citing. One, it premises the importance of ensuring journalists’ safety on their fundamental and inalienable rights as citizens, rather than being an ‘indulgence’ that can be withdrawn at will. Second, the bill unflinchingly lays out the real problems that journalists in Pakistan face, and addresses the critical issue of impunity by setting up a seven-member commission — led by a former Supreme Court judge — with wide-ranging powers of investigation and redressal. The statutory body would be duty-bound to investigate and prosecute within 14 days all forms of harassment, coercion and violence against media professionals — including forced or involuntary disappearances, kidnapping, abduction, etc. Third, the draft stipulates that counterterrorism or national security laws shall not be used arbitrarily to detain journalists or hinder their work. In a repressive environment where the ‘national security’ argument has been speciously used to slap treason and cyberterrorism charges on media workers, this is an important consideration. Moreover, when journalistic work crosses the line into defamation or incitement to violence, the bill says the penalty must be based on “principles of legality, necessity and proportionality”. In sum, it is a well-considered piece of proposed legislation, marked by clarity and conducive to achieving tangible results.
The media in Pakistan is reeling under unprecedented pressure. Various quarters including political actors, security agencies, etc, seek to censor information they perceive as damaging to them — and they will go to any length to achieve their objective. There is thus a dire need for substantive legislation to ‘protect the messenger’. In the last 10 days alone, two journalists have been murdered in Pakistan, quite possibly on account of their work. Their deaths underscore the perils that members of the press in this country must contend with if they cross powerful vested interests. Pakistan ranked eighth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index 2019, with 16 unsolved murders of media practitioners over the past decade. Since 1994, only three out of over 60 such cases have seen any success in terms of prosecution. The government now has a golden opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to press freedom. The question is, will it venture into this uncharted territory?