The recently passed law by the Punjab Assembly in which the judicial committee of the house can penalize any bureaucrat or journalist in a summary trial for breaching the privilege of the house or any member of the committee. Journalists across the board have taken this step as a blatant violation of freedom of speech and an attack of press liberty.
Thus, Lahore Press Club, Punjab Union of Journalist, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalist (Rana Azeem), South Punjab Journalists Association, Punjab Assembly Press Gallery Committee, and Electronic Media Reporters Association had earlier joined hands to condemn this notorious move and furtive way of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab Privileges (Amendment) Bill, 2021. Moreover, by terming it as a violation of democratic norms, they had held up a rally of protest outside the Governor’s house to exercise their condemnation.
Journalists' representative bodies have demanded that the Punjab government must immediately repeal anti-journalist clauses in the recently enacted Punjab Assembly Privileges (Amendment) Act, 2021.
— Voicepk.net (@voicepkdotnet) July 6, 2021
How this Controversial bill limited press freedom
Ironically, this bill was passed unanimously by the government and opposition parties such as PTI, PML-N, PPP, and PML-Q without circulating among the members of the press gallery. Since the bill was a blatant censure of their speech and press rights, the say of the press was not taken into account.
According to this bill, the speaker of the Assembly can formulate a judicial committee that has the mandate to arrest a journalist on the account of a complaint made by the committee members and land him down to six-month jail and Rs10, 000 penalty for supposed breach of any privilege included in the Privileges Act II of 1972.
Among the lists of breach of privileges include willful misrepresentation of any speech made by a member before any committee or assembly, publishing any report or debate prohibited by the chair or publishing any insight or analysis on the conduct of the chair or any accusation of partiality by him and publishing any proceedings of the committee prior to being published in an official gazette or reported in the assembly.
Turning the tables
However, the Punjab Assembly has amended the recently passed law that mentioned jail terms for the journalists for their supposed violation of member’s privilege through reporting. Speaker Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, who was chairing the meeting highlighted that by amending the contentious law all reservations of the journalist community were eliminated
Undeniably, freedom of speech and assembly is a prerequisite for the effective functioning of the government in the democratic system. The media acts as a watchdog over all the affairs and performances of government officials. It seeks to provide an encapsulated view over the functioning of the departments so that the public remains aware of the developments taken by them in the course of time. In this way, an effective system of accountability and transparency comes to the forefront backed by the media’s responsible approach.
However, there is still a catch. At times, too much freedom can lead to a breach of respect and privilege creating a culture of chaos and instability. Therefore, prudence lies in ensuring freedom within flexible boundaries, and through apt negotiation over the proposed bill, a middle way is yet to be anticipated.