The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.
The National Journalist Convention organised by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and held on November 17, 2021, in Islamabad was a resounding success, but it did not get adequate coverage in the mainstream media in Pakistan. Political leaders such as Maryam Nawaz and Farhatullah Babar spoke unequivocally in favour of journalists’ demands.
But the real heroes of the convention were the three outstanding personalities who gave this event its strength and vitality: Afzal Butt, Nasir Zaidi and Shehzada Zulfiqar. They had the support of the entire journalist community in Rawalpindi and Islamabad including the Aamir Sajjad-led Rawalpindi Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) and the National Press Club (NPC) whose president is Shakeel Anjum.
Attendance at the convention was pretty impressive as hundreds of media professionals went to the federal capital to voice their concerns about the sorry state of the media under the PTI rule. The highlight of the convention was the ‘Charter of Freedom of Speech and Media in Pakistan’ that participants approved unanimously.
This article will highlight those points of the charter which were discussed in detail by speakers such as Ahsan Bhoon, Asma Shirazi, Hamid Mir, Harris Khalique, Karamat Ali and Khushdil Khan. Most of the speakers highlighted the need for an enabling legal and regulatory framework for free speech and independent media in the country.
It means that the government must commit to an inclusive and participatory approach in all legislation. When leaders of civil society, media and political parties were raising this issue at the convention, the government, on the same day, pushed dozens of bills through a joint parliamentary session and passed 33 bills – some of them highly controversial. The convention was more concerned about legislation that directly or indirectly impacts freedom of speech in the country. In this regard, the convention supported amendments in Articles 19 and 19-A to strengthen freedom of expression and the right to information.
The right to information is something that no government or judiciary should compromise on. Unfortunately, the same bodies that should serve as the guardians of this right are persistently violating this right under various pretexts. Be it any information about some gifts to the PM or about perks and privileges of the judiciary, it has become an uphill task to get access to such information. Bureaucracy creates obstacles to free information access and declines, or delays, such requests ad infinitum. The charter sought an immediate halt to such obstacles.
The convention supported the timely review and repeal of any components repugnant to freedom of speech in all existing or proposed media regulatory laws. This includes those drafted by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) and Pakistan Telecommunication Act (PTA). Instead, the government may adopt a transparent and rule-based digital and print media licensing system to counter the monopoly of media outlets. This will provide inclusive and unhindered content that complies with all professional requirements. This is significant as some of the clauses of Peca, Pemra, and the highly controversial Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) are – in one way or the other – repugnant to freedom of speech.
The same applies to the ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020’ and ‘Social Media Rules 2021’ that the government must withdraw. However, it may revise them in consultation with key stakeholders such as representatives from the journalist community and civil society. Blocking contents amounts to censorship which has no place in the 21st century and a democracy. The convention vowed to resist policies that aim at targetting media professionals and that allow the blatant abuse of authority and restrict freedom of speech by intimidating journalists.
In our country, the police and other law-enforcement agencies usually register cases against journalists, on false allegations, under treason and the Anti-terrorism Act. This practice must halt and those responsible for false cases must be held accountable. This requires the introduction of transparent mechanisms so that culprits face punitive actions. These cases are a cause of concern as they lead to informal and illegal censorship where certain individuals who challenge the state’s version of events are silenced.
Participants at the convention were clear and loud against the continuous disruption of media channels by powerful forces who use attacks and the threats of economic and physical violence to stop the transmission of any critical information. A normally neglected point that was highlighted was the restoration of regional newspapers as the local media needs an uplift through the equitable use of the advertisement quota, especially in some less-developed districts.
Local digital media also falls in the same category and it deserves extension and promotion. This branch of the media can play a vital role in circulating locally focused and inclusive content.
Also, there is the challenge of safeguarding the rights of journalists and media professionals. Some clear administrative and legal measures can support and uphold these rights. This calls for the enactment and enforcement of bills related to journalists’ safety and security. This will entail a comprehensive arrangement to ensure the security of life and property of journalists and media professionals.
One of the demands of the journalists present at the convention was that those who were involved in abductions and even the killings of journalists during the last 20 years must face their due punishments. What is even more disturbing is the fact that victims and their families seldom get any monetary compensation. The convention supported a compensation package of at least Rs2 million for the families of those journalists and media workers who lost their lives in the line of duty or who were killed by both known and ‘unidentified’ people.
It also demanded that victims’ children must get free quality education and health facilities so that they are safe and protected at least in the near future. The problems of women journalists and media workers also came under discussion as the cases of gender-based discrimination and harassment in workplaces are on the rise.
It has also been observed that in our country, TV anchors who are critical of the government – or who highlight its weaknesses – face excessive trolling, especially if they are women. The charter of the PFUJ demands that the government must condemn such acts and commit to act, and devise a policy, to curb harassment in all forms – online and otherwise. Protecting the dignity and security of all journalists – especially of women – should be a top priority of the government and media houses; strict laws must come in force to ensure this. Both the federal and provincial governments must deal with it on a priority basis.
The PFUJ’s charter adopted at the convention also demanded support for establishing press clubs at the district-headquarter level by the provincial governments. Press clubs provide a healthy and safe environment to local journalists; they can play a constructive role in promotion of quality reporting from their areas. As of today, not many districts in Pakistan have functional and friendly spaces for journalists to assemble and work at. The government must also resolve the financial crisis in the media industry through an inclusive approach, involving all stakeholders.
As the economic security of journalists and media professionals is under severe pressure, there is a need to implement necessary measures to alleviate their hardships, starting with an immediate end to employee retrenchments and the full implementation of the 2019 Wage Award for newspaper employees. The PFUJ charter calls for the immediate enforcement of these steps and demands that the state provide better working conditions for journalists and media professionals. We must give the PFUJ, NPC, and RIUJ credit for highlighting these issues.