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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Does PTI really believe in freedom of expression?

At least 60 journalists were booked under Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, in 35 cases which included 50 journalists from Sindh province alone in 2019. Two days ago, editor in chief of a private media group has been arrested. Does PTI really believe in free press?

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) is facing criticism for clandestine attempts to control media and political dissent in Pakistan. Some segments of media believe that the ruling party does not want journalists to be critical of its policies. The government, on the other hand, not only rejects these allegations but also assures that it fundamentally believes in free press which, it says, is key for institutionalization of democracy.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq says the government strictly believes in freedom of media and is taking all out steps to facilitate the media community.

Addressing a press conference in Islamabad on Friday, she said rule of law and empowering state institutions is the essence of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s 22-years long struggle.

The special assistant said state institutions are playing their unbiased role under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, however she regretted that to link the arrest of a media owner by NAB with the freedom of media is unethical.

Read more: Freedom of Speech: PTI government intends to control digital media?

The SAPM said that 22-year political struggle of Prime Minister Imran Khan was based on the rule of law and Constitution, strengthening of institutions and implementation of law on all citizens irrespective of their status. She also noted that during the PTI’s tenure, national institutions had become vibrant and they were now performing their duties independently.

Moreover, while commenting on the recent arrest of Geo News CEO, she said that Mir Shakilur Rehman had been arrested by NAB in connection with a case related to taking undue favours from a former prime minister and chief minister. She said that as now the matter was subjudice, it was not justified to hold “media courts” on the issue as it tantamount to an attempt to influence the judges of the court. Both the parties should present their evidences in the court of law and media debate on the issue should be avoided, she suggested.

While talking about the Geo News CEO, she said that the government had come to know about the arrest of Mir Shakil from the media, and did not react as the matter related to NAB, which was an independent institution.

PTI’s government attempted to control digital media?

The government is particularly facing criticism since it recently attempted to control digital media. According to the document titled “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020”, social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, will have to register with the government within three months of coming into force of the new rules. But these rules, argue tech companies, also empower the government to control information and use it for its ‘vested’ political interests.

Digital media companies will have to appoint in Pakistan, a focal person based in Pakistan for coordination with the National Coordinator and the concerned authority within three months of the date of coming into force of these rules.

They will have to establish one or more database servers in Pakistan within 12 months to record and store data and online content, within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan for citizen data privacy.

Read more: Freedom of expression vs anti-state propaganda: What should Pakistan do?

The companies will be required to remove, suspend or disable access to such account, online content of citizens of Pakistan residing outside its territorial boundaries and posts on online content that are involved in spreading of fake news or defamation and violates or affects the religious, cultural, ethnic, or national security sensitivities of Pakistan. Moreover, if communicated by the authority that certain online content is false, the companies will be required to put a note to that effect along with the online content.

Silencing journalists?

Journalists and opinion-makers in Pakistan face several challenges. The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) recently revealed it in its Pakistan Media Freedom Report 2019 issued. It has compilation of cases, number of victims and sequence of events made mockery of freedom of media and freedom of speech in the country.

Reports also contained recommendations by Arif Nizami, the President, CPNE. The report says that despite the fact that there is a specific law on defamation, but the government and other actors used Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, PECA and Pakistan Penal Codes criminalization sections against media practitioners in Pakistan.

At least 60 journalists were booked under Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, in 35 cases which included 50 journalists from Sindh province alone.

Read more: Watchdog criticizes PTI govt’s social media curbs

According to available data, at least seven journalists reportedly were murdered during the year 2019 while reports suggest at least 15 journalists were injured during attacks in the line of duty. The mysterious and unidentified actors unknown constituted the biggest threat to press freedom as it was in the previous year as well. The second biggest threats to the lives of journalists were non-state actors outlawed terrorist and militant groups who continued their attacks on journalists and media in previous year too report mentioned.

If the PTI’s government really believes in freedom of expression it must ensure that all laws are implemented in letter and spirit, and no journalist is targeted for being critical of the government.