‘Draft bill restricts media access to elections’
ISLAMABAD: The ambiguities in the Draft Elections Bill 2017 were discussed at a press conference by representatives of the Free and Fair Elections (Fafen) and civil society activists on Tuesday.
The draft bill is the unification of all election laws and includes proposed improvements for the protection of the Election Commission’s authority and promotes women’s political rights among other things.
The bill calls for harsher punishment for officials of the Election Commission found leaking information than for those involved in rigging the elections, according to rights activist Sarwar Bari.
He said that according to Clause 194 of the bill, Election Commission officers can face five years in prison and a fine of Rs5 million if they leak information.
“However, if the same officials are involved in rigging, they will face three years in prison and a fine of just Rs100,000. This is just an attempt to stop information from leaking to the media and civil society. How is leaking information or identifying weaknesses worse than rigging or corruption,” he asked.
He said that it has now become a trend for as many as 10 members of the same family serving in parliament and the provincial assemblies, about which the draft bill is silent.
During the press conference, Fafen representative Muddassir Rizvi said the bill called for ensuring that at least 10pc of women participate in polls and that those who have defaulted on their utility bills for six months are not eligible for contesting the elections.
“Stopping the flow of information is not acceptable. According to the draft bill, the media will not be allowed to observe the scrutiny of contestant’s documents and other processes. We have taken the National Press Club on board and may contact the committee which will review the bill. As a last option, we will file a petition in the Supreme Court,” he said.
He said the media’s access to information should be legally protected to ensure transparency.
“Apparently, the media will get access [to information] in Islamabad, but such access will be at the discretion of the district administration in far flung areas. Also, security officials are not placed directly under presiding officers and have been directed to cooperate with them instead,” he said.
Another Fafen representative, Rasheen Chaudhry said that a citizen’s name is added to the voter’s list when he is issued a CNIC. However, the draft bill calls for the removal of a citizen’s name from the voter’s list when a CNIC is cancelled.
“We demand, citizen’s names should not be excluded from the list unless their nationality is revoked. The rights of marginalised communities should also be given more attention and women voters should be facilitated more,” he said.
According to a report handed to the media by Fafen, the draft bill allows for delimitation at any time before the issuance of an election programme. The report warns that last minute delimitations may be used to influence the election process and outcome.
According to the report, the draft bill does not provide for transparency in the process of appointing caretaker government and the report suggests minutes of meetings of the leader of the house and leader of the opposition in this connection should be required to be made public.
The draft bill does not sufficiently clarify the criteria for finalising polling stations, including the number of male and female registered voters for each station and booth as well as the maximum distance of voters from the polling stations, the report says.
It goes on to say that the draft bill does not adequately mention the duration in which expenses incurred by a candidate will be deemed election expenses and also does not cover the expenses incurred by the party on behalf of a candidate.
The draft bill does not require the submission of income tax returns by members of the assemblies and Senate and only requires annual submission of wealth statements including assets and liabilities, the report says.
It says that the bill requires the announcements of provisional results by returning officers which can be problematic due to changes in the election result during vote consolidation because of postal ballots, overseas voting, identification problems at polling stations etc.
It also does not provide a timeframe for elections on reserved seats on local governments nor does it provide a timeframe for by elections if a local government seats falls vacant, the report says.