Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2000 by Owais Aslam Ali -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Pakistan Press Freedom Report 2000 by Owais Aslam Ali

Introduction

The biggest failure of successive governments concerning press freedom has been the inability to provide security to journalists and media institutions. The killing of four newspaper employees, including one journalist, and injury to many others is proof that the present government of General Pervez Musharraf has fared no better in providing a secure environment essential for the promotion of press freedom in the country. The Pakistani media continued to be exposed to violence and pressures from the administration, political and religious groups during the year 2000.

On the positive side the General Musharraf’s administration did follow a liberal policy towards the press with fewer restrictions and much less manipulation of the press as compared to previous governments.

Javed Jabbar, Minister of Information and Media Development for most of the year, also tried to reform the media structures. Some measures such as the abolition of newsprint quota and reduction of import duty on it, on from July 1, 2000, fulfilled a long-standing demand of the Pakistani press. Other significant developments included granting of over 600 licenses for operation of cable television networks and substantial progress on the formation of the press council.

However, progress was unsatisfactory on many other fundamental issues, such as ending government monopoly control over the electronic media, introduction of freedom of information and access to information regulations, autonomy for the audit bureau of circulation. Another glaring omission was that the government did not initiate any serious debate on the revoking draconian laws, such as Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Public Order that have in the past been used against the press.

The lack of clarity of vision and commitment were important reasons for the inability and unwillingness of the government to make institutional changes to promote press freedom. This was reflected in the statement by Jabbar that while the government would end its monopoly over the electronic media it would have to create safeguards for the society and social sector, and that the independent press and electronic media will have to act as a guardian of public interest. He declared that “adequate measures will have to be taken to protect the public interest from the onslaught of media,”

Because of such ambiguous thinking, Jabbar was unable to create a stable constituency either among the supporters for a free media or those worried about the dangers a free press could pose to “public interest.” He thus had to resign on October 15 citing “personal reasons.”

Violence against the media

Bomb blast kills four

The most horrific case of violence was a suicide bomb attack on the Karachi advertising office of the Nawa-e-Waqt group, which publishes the Urdu-language daily Nawa-i-Waqt, the daily Nation and a number of other publications.

Three persons including the woman carrying the bomb, advertising manager, Najamul Hasan Zaidi, another employee Ziaul Haq were killed the same day and three others were seriously injured. One of the injured, computer operator Sajid Mehmood, who was critically wounded with burns to 70 percent of his body, died in the hospital a week later. The woman, whose body was badly mutilated, could not be identified.

The building was used by the advertising department, as the editorial operations had shifted to another location after arson and rocket attacks on the building in 1995. The force of the blast destroyed the building’s main gate and damaged walls and windows of a nearby hospital, as well as setting some cars on fire.

Journalist murdered

Earlier in the year on May 2, the correspondent of the Karachi-based Urdu language daily, Ummat, Soofi Mohammad Khan, was murdered in the town of Shadi Large in Badin district in the Southern province of Sindh. Khan, 49, had a wife, four sons and two daughters.

Khan did numerous investigative stories on women trafficking in Thar district and had received many death threats. A few months earlier, he was injured by some unknown persons who had attempted to kill him. However, no one was arrested at that time.

According to press reports, the murder was said to be in retaliation against reports published in the daily. As soon as Khan set out for home, the assailant, Ayaz Khattak, opened fire on him. The journalist died on the spot. The assailant surrendered to the police.

In a statement, the Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) and the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (APNEC) office-bearers said that Soofi Mohammad Khan had been killed for his writing about criminals who had been enjoying patronage of local feudal lords.

A number of journalists from Badin, Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas districts and adjoining areas staged protest rallies to condemn the murder.

Newspaper office ransacked and burned

There were many other serious cases of violence against journalists and media organizations.

On May 18, a violent mob protesting the murder of Islamic scholar Maulana Yousuf Ludhianvi, attacked, ransacked and set fire to the offices of the Karachi business daily Business Recorder.

The newspaper office and the bank on the building’s ground floor were badly burnt. Staff members saved their lives by jumping over high walls into the adjacent houses. The cars, vans and motorcycles parked inside the newspaper building compound were set ablaze and damaged by angry protestors. The mob also smashed windowpanes of shops and vehicles in the nearby area. A number of newspaper employees were trapped in the office compound until late at night because police could not provide protection for them outside.

According to Arshad Zuberi, the newspaper’s chief executive, a mob barged into their building shortly before sunset and ransacked and destroyed everything in the newsroom and computer section. They started a fire in the multi-story office building, which soon engulfed the entire building. Zuberi said the methodical ransacking of the offices was a clear proof that the attack was premeditated and well planned.

He said that they foresaw the coming attack, and made calls to police and rangers, but no one came to help. The fire fighters came after two hours and saved some people still trapped inside the building.

The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) said another disturbing part of the episode was the fact that newspaper reporters and photographers were not allowed to perform their duties. Their cameras were snatched and smashed and they were manhandled by an angry mob in the presence of law enforcement agencies and paramilitary forces.

Journalist shot

Abdul Hafeez Abid, Hyderabad bureau chief of the daily Ummat, and his son were injured when an unidentified man opened fire at them on July 16.

Abid had come out of his office with his son Shahid when they came under attack Abid received three bullets and had to be rushed to the hospital in serious condition.

A meeting of editors, journalists and press photographers held at the Hyderabad Press Club condemned the murderous attack and demanded the arrest of culprits. An emergency meeting of Sukkur Union of Journalists deplored the non-serious approach of the authorities to deal with the terrorist elements that had targeted journalists. The president of the Nawabshah Union of Journalists said such actions against journalists occur due to leniency of law-enforcement agencies.

The police picked up four suspects for interrogation.

Newspaper offices ransacked

On January 24, armed men barged into Karachi bureau office of Sindhi Daily Halchal, manhandled staff and ransacked the office.

Armed persons reportedly belonging to the committee for the release of Asif Ali Zardari (spouse of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto) forced their entry into the office and threatened the staff members for publishing news against their party member Mobin Phulphotu. They manhandled and injured three journalists.

In another similar incident about fifty armed persons barged into the office of an evening daily Sham, in Hyderabad on April 27. They ransacked the office and damaged computers and a scanner. They also resorted to aerial firing and tried to set fire to the office. Staff members were not present at the office at the time of the attack.

The newspaper had published scandals relating to leading politicians, including those of the Pakistan Peoples Party Shaheed Bhutto Group (PPP-SB), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML). After their publication, the editor started receiving threats. The newspaper then published a clarification and apology, regretting the publication of the articles.

Journalist receives death threats from land encroachers

On September 3, Wahid Baksh Nipi Turk, a journalist of a local Sindhi newspaper told a press conference at the Karachi Press Club (KPC) that he has been receiving death threats by the persons who had encroached upon government land.

Turk said ever since he reported on encroachment of the land of a graveyard in Malir area, the land grabbers had started threatening and harassing him and his colleagues.

He however, appreciated the efforts of the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Malir, Ghulam Nabi Memon who ordered an investigation during which two of the land grabbers Ghulam Mustafa Abro and Zafar Gowalchi were arrested, and a criminal complaint was also lodged against them.

Journalist’s car attacked

On February 18th, unknown persons attacked the car of a female journalist Qudsia Khan as she was heading for home from the office in Karachi. The car was damaged in the incident.

The KUJ expressed concern at the incident and appealed to the authorities to take steps for proper security of the journalist who had been threatened on telephone after the publication of her articles.

Pakistan’s media team refused accommodation in New Delhi

Pakistani journalists, unfortunately, also had to face harassment outside the country. According to the Hindustan Times, journalists visiting New Delhi as members of a peace delegation were refused accommodation because of being Pakistanis.

The guesthouses refused accommodation saying that the police would harass them if they provided rooms to Pakistanis. “If the policemen came to know that Pakistanis are staying here, it would mean trouble for us,” one of the employees told the journalists.

Among the group was photojournalist Rahat Ali Dar, who was holding an exhibition of his photographs in the Indian capital, Muhammad Akram, staff correspondent of The News Lahore, and Mohammad Tanveer, Executive Director of the Lahore-based Journalists, Resource Centre.

Administrative action against the press

Weekly banned

On October 17 the weekly newspaper K-2, published from Skardu in Northern Areas, was banned on the grounds that it was “promoting anti Pakistan feelings and advocating curtailment of territories within the boundaries of the state.”

Although the weekly was printed from Rawalpindi, its publishing licence or declaration was revoked by district magistrate, Skardu, from where the declaration was obtained. The magistrate issued a show-cause notice to the printer and publisher of the weekly, Raja Hussain Khan Maqpoon, for “flagrantly” violating the provisions of the Registration of Printing Presses and Publications ordinance (RPPPO), 1995.

The paper was accused of “condemning the creation of Pakistan, advocating curtailment of the territories lying within the borders of Pakistan and bringing hatred and contempt of government established by law in Pakistan with intention of causing defiance of the authority of the government.” The magistrate, in his show-cause notice, had asked the printer and publisher to answer why his declaration should not be revoked after the publication of these stories.

In his reply, Maqpoon, who is also the chief editor, said he had made it clear in the footnote of one of the offending articles that the newspaper did not ascribe to the views of the writer. He said the other news items were truthful reporting of events, which were also published by many other newspapers.

However, the magistrate, in his order found that the chief editor has indirectly consented to the charges. The order said the paper had violated the trust entrusted by the government and revoked the declaration under the RPPPO.

Harassment by law enforcement officials

Journalist’s family members arrested

The arrogant and, at times, ruthless behaviour of the law enforcement agencies continued to be a cause of serious concern for the Pakistani media.

On 23 May, the authorities issued an arrest warrant against Iqbal Hussain, Kurram Agency correspondent of Jang and The News International newspapers. When the journalist went into hiding to avoid arrest, his brother Ajmal Hussain, also a journalist associated with the daily Sahafat, was arrested. On 6 June, his father was also detained. On 10 June, both were released with the warning that if Iqbal Hussain did not give himself up to police within two weeks, his father and brother would go back to jail. The arrests were made under the infamous Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which allow for communal punishment in case the accused evades arrest

After arresting relatives of Iqbal Hussain, the authorities warned other journalists not to release any news critical of the civil administration otherwise they would face dire consequences. Ahmed Jan Siddiqui correspondent of daily Ausaf violated this directive and continued to write stories exposing corruption within the local civil administration. He was arrested from his house late at night on June 7.

Newspaper’s office raided to check use of electricity

On September 27, a team consisting of six fully armed army personnel, three engineers of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) and a representative of the Electrical Inspector, Government of Sindh, came without prior notice, to the headquarters of the Pakistan Herald Publications, publishers of the Dawn Group of Newspapers, and insisted on an immediate inspection and testing of all the existing electric installations.

A spokesperson for the newspaper group said “The highhanded manner in which the inspection by the army monitoring team was carried out left an indelible impression that a punitive raid rather than an electrical inspection was the basic objective of the operation.”

The management of the newspaper group protested at the strong arm tactics by the inspection team who threatened the newspaper management with the immediate disconnection of the electric supply to the press and the consequential stoppage of all newspaper printing and publishing activities, if immediate access was not allowed.

The army inspection team refused to allow its military personnel to follow security identification procedures which have been enforced in Dawn’s headquarters since the bomb blasts over a year ago, when journalists and press workers’ lives had been threatened by as yet unidentified terrorist groups.

According to the newspaper spokesperson, the military officer in charge, against taking of photographs of the inspection, stated, “This was a secret operation ordered by the higher ups and that no photographs were to be published.”

The spokesperson added,” Of late, the present administration has become increasingly hostile towards any criticism.” ” In particular, the government has strongly protested with respect to the writings of a senior Dawn journalist who had earlier commented in a dispatch from New York that the administration of Chief Executive Musharraf was preparing to initiate a new round of repressive measures against the free press. Recent legal notices sent to Dawn by the regime’s Minister of Information and a senior official of the Ministry of Information in Islamabad, not to mention the watering down of a proposed Freedom of Information Act draft, have served as major indicators of a new press strategy being pursued by the present administration. The independent policies followed by Dawn and its sister publications may well prove to be the first target of such repressive measures.” the spokesperson said.

Mr. Arif Nizami, President, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) condemned the inspection and said while newspapers were not above the law, the established norms and legal procedures were not followed in this case. He demanded of the government to conduct an inquiry and take immediate action against those who ordered the operation.

Rangers harass reporters

On March 2, two officials of the paramilitary Rangers snatched notes and other belongings from Zarar Khan the chief reporter of The News after the court proceedings of the case against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the Anti-Terrorism Court in Karachi.

The Rangers insisted that he should return the notes passed on by Nawaz Sharif even though Zarar Khan explained that the former prime minister had not given him any notes.

Later, the entire press corps lodged a protest with the advocate general Sindh and registrar of the Anti Terrorism Courts. After their intervention, the Rangers officials returned the journalist’s belongings.

A few months earlier, the police outside the same court beat up Khan and other journalists during Nawaz Sharif’s first appearance and since then Khan has been suffering from cervical spine problem.

Journalists arrested for publishing appeal of murder victims’ wife and mother.

On 29 August, Shujaat Ali Khan, correspondent of the daily Ajar and Din was arrested in Bisham in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on the absurd charge of impersonation as he had written an article for a newspaper of which he was not a staff member. The real reason for his arrest was that the offending article was a widow’s appeal to the country’s chief executive, seeking his help to arrest the killers of her son and husband.

The judge who was in charge of the widow’s case ordered the journalist’s arrest.

Police barge into Lahore Press Club

A large number of policemen entered the Lahore Press Club on July 10, while Omer Sailya, President of the Small Traders Association was addressing a press conference criticizing the governments tax policies. The police officers beat journalists who tried to stop them from entering the building and forced their way into the press club.

The journalists took out a procession to protest against a police raid. Punjab Union of Journalist president Bakhtgir Chaudhry and Lahore Press Club president Badr Munir Chaudhry warned that journalists of Lahore would give a call for a countrywide protest movement if action was not taken against those responsible for the attack.

As a result of the protests, the Punjab government agreed to transfer Superintendent of Police Jawad Dogar and initiate inquiry against Magistrate Usman Ghani and the Station House Officer (SHO) for their role in the incident.

Press photographer beaten up

On September 3, police assaulted a press photographer, for taking pictures of police baton-charge on youth outside the venue of a musical concert, in Hyderabad.

According to the press reports Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Iqbal Dara and Traffic Inspector Noorul Haq Rind, along with several dozen police officers manhandled the youth outside the concert of the local pop group Junoon. Most of the youths, despite having tickets, were denied entry, which resulted in disturbance and they chanted slogans against the police. The police used batons and rifle butts to disperse the crowd, causing stampede on the main road.

Imran Malik, the photographer of regional Sindhi daily Ibrat, and Ishtiaq Ahmed of daily Kawish took photographs of the baton charge by the police. This irritated the ASP who ordered Inspector Rind to catch hold of the photographers. Malik was caught by the police personnel, who threw him into a mobile and started beating him up with sticks and rifle butts and took him to the police station where he was again beaten.

Journalists barred from taking pictures

On December 13, five journalists were detained by a military officer for trying to take photographs of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif as he was being exiled to Saudi Arabia.

As the journalists reached the road leading to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base Chaklala, close to Islamabad airport, at around 3.30 am, to wait for the deposed prime minister and his family to arrive, an army jeep stopped and an officer in civilian clothes who seemed annoyed at their presence, started questioning them.

When the journalists explained the purpose of their presence he started humiliating them and accused the media as the cause of all ills in the country. The army officer threatened the journalists and told them that taking pictures of army vehicles was a crime under the Army Act. He ordered the soldiers to confiscate the cameras and other equipment.

At around 6am, after the Sharif family had entered the air force base, the journalists were handed back the cameras but the film rolls were removed.

The detained journalists included Tanveer Shahzad, photographer of The News; Kamran Khan, cameraman of CNBC; Nasir Khan, photographer of the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP); Mubarik Virk, City Editor of The Nation, and Shahid Ahmed, senior cameramen of PTV News.

Reform of media structures

Cable television networks

In view of the popularity and unregulated growth of cable television networks, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) released rules and code of conduct for establishing terrestrial cable TV distribution system in May and later issued over 600 licenses for cable television networks throughout Pakistan. However, production of local programmes by cable network is not permitted.

Unfortunately, the cable television’s popularity also caused serious problems, particularly in the North West Frontier Province where certain religious parties and groups launched a campaign, which at times became violent, against cable television.

On April 16, inspired by Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement, a religious group calling itself Islami Tehrik-e-Taliban stormed video shops and burnt thousands of video cassettes, several television and VCRs in the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan.

The Tehrik had earlier warned video shop owners, drug traffickers and others involved in immoral businesses of dire consequences if they did not voluntarily shut down such businesses.

Witnesses said the Tehrik’s men armed with rocket launchers, missiles and heavy machine guns early morning cordoned off the bazaar and took positions on the rooftops of buildings. Some armed men then stormed the video and music shops and started throwing out the video and audit cassettes, televisions and VCRs that were later set on fire.

Later the local administration closed down all video and music shops to avoid further escalation of violence.

Many similar protests were held throughout the province. On July 21, Jamiatul Ulemai Islam (JUI) took out a procession in Dera Ismail Khan against cable network system. The procession raised slogans against the cable networks.

In Peshawar 23, religious-political groups formed the Islami Mutahida Inqilabi Mahaz to pressurize the government for banning cable networks in the province.

In Mardan, on October 30, a previously unknown group calling itself the Islamic Jirga, publicly burnt television sets for being a source of obscenity.

Hundred of persons had gathered in the sports ground following announcements about the burning of television sets. The activists bought a number of television sets, each inscribed with a slogan, and set them on fire. The slogans declared that television was a devil’s box, source of obscenity, a threat to faith, a danger for pious women and was responsible for misleading the youth, particularly girls. Activists termed cable television as a threat to the culture, traditions and morals of the Muslims.

The problems pf cable networks were further compounded by the governor of NWFP, Lt General (retd) Muhammad Shafiq, who on June 21 ordered the ban on cable network while addressing the religious Seerat-un-Nabi gathering. The governor’s order followed speeches of religious scholars terming the cable networks as an evil spreading obscenity and vulgarity in the province. “We need scientists and scholars not actors and dancers,” said Maulana Hasan Jan, head of a religious school

A week earlier, the Peshawar city administration fearing law and order situation sealed the networks of six cables operators. The owners of the networks challenged the legality of the orders of the city administration in the Peshawar High Court. Following the governor’s orders eight cable television networks also jointly petitioned the Peshawar High Court to overturn their sudden closure.

“The cable TV network is permitted by the federal government and no functionary of provincial governments can suspend their operation,” said Qazi Mohammad Jamil, advocate for the cable networks, adding all the closed networks had valid licenses. He said the case highlighted the gap between the “forward looking” government in Islamabad and provincial governments in areas where religious parties and lobby groups have considerable influence.

A week after the orders of the governor, the provincial administration clarified that the governor had only referred to the banning of illegal cable television networks and not authorised networks.

On July 2, the Peshawar High Court declared that the ban imposed by the city administration was against the constitution and without lawful authority and was removed with immediate effect.

In view of threats to their operations, the owners of cable television networks of Peshawar formed Cable Television Association and its president Zubair Khalid urged the government to ensure a secure environment to their business.

Zubair said the association had constituted a monitoring committee to discourage telecasting immoral programmes or those not in line with Islamic injunctions. He said that cable operators would open up one new channel for religious teachings. He also emphasized the need for public awareness campaigns to make people aware of the positive aspects of the cable television.

The PTA licence terms also require cable network operators to show respect to all ethnic, linguistic groups and minorities and to the religious, social, cultural, traditional and moral values of the country.

Action against unauthorised cable operators

After the issuance of licenses to cable television networks, the city administration of Islamabad, the Capital Development Authority (CDA), started a campaign to close down unregulated and unauthorized cable networks.

In September, the CDA started removing the connections of Illegal cable TV operators running their business without having valid license from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and permission from CDA. According to CDA sources, about 100 cable networks in Islamabad but only 20 of them had acquired licenses from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and the rest were operating illegally.

CDA said the unauthorized laying of cables could damage the network of telephone and electric cables and added that illegal cable operators also used using polls, trees and walls of houses for delivery of cables to clients.

According to press reports, cable services of about 100,000 people in the federal capital were disconnected as a result of the CDA campaign.

Star TV’s license suspended

On December 14, the PTA barred Star TV from selling its network decoders in Pakistan following the company’s tariff dispute with the cable operators.

Earlier, PTA had asked the Star TV to restore its transmission to cable operators suspended on November 14 because they did not agree to the rate increase by Star TV.

In a letter, chairperson, PTA, Mian Mohammad Javed asked Star TV to withdraw the rate hike, as PTA has not approved the rate demanded by Star TV from the cable operators. He said Star TV could not fix its charges arbitrarily as the rates are decided after public debate and after seeking the views of all the stakeholders.

Pakistan cable TV operators said they wanted the Star TV Company to match its charges with those in India where it was charging Rs 20 to 25 per customer per month while it had arbitrarily fixed the rate at Rs 86 per customer per month in Pakistan.

Reforms of media structures

Press Council

The APNS, CPNE and the Ministry of Information and Media Development worked steadily during the year to establish a press council.

On May 16, the APNS released its draft legislation for formation of Press Council, Access to Information Ordinance and Press, Newspapers and Books Registration Act for comments and suggestions.

APNS president, Mir Shakil ur Rehman said the APNS and the CPNE were keen to establish the press council at an early date. He urged that the Freedom of Information Act and the amended Registration of Printing Press and Publication Ordinance (RPPPO) should be promulgated by the government along with the Press Council Ordinance.

The then Minister for Information and Media Development, Javed Jabbar said there was a need for the establishment of Press Council in order to promote healthy journalism and preserve the freedom of the press.

The IPI studied the APNS draft Press Council Ordinance and expressed reservations saying that there are ‘fundamental flaws’ in it that needs to be addressed. It identified as the major concern, the desire to create a quasi-judicial body without proper procedures in place to provide fairness and equity. The IPI also expressed reservations about the proposed composition, it’s financing and the terminology used in describing the ethical code, and made a number of recommendations for improving the draft ordinance.

On November 30, the Ministry of Information and the representatives of the APNS and the CPNE announced they had reached consensus on the draft for the establishment of a press council in the country. The text of the draft is expected to be released shortly for approval of the members of the APNS and the CPNE.

The CPNE, President, Arif Nizami said that a consensus was developed for the formation of a press council, which would be self-regulatory, and an institution of self-accountability. The APNS President, Mir Shakil ur Rehman observed that now it would be possible to redress the complaints of the people, government or institutions against the press and it would have positive impact on the press.

Private radio, TV channels

In his first address to the nation, the Pakistan’s Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf said the government would consider ending state monopoly of the electronic media. In July, he categorically announced that private radio and television channels in the country would go on air from the year 2001.

While considerable progress was made in the early months of the year on establishing a framework for opening up the airwaves to the private sector, the process later got bogged down due to conflicts of interest between different centres of power within and outside the government.

The new government had initially moved swiftly to fulfilling its commitment and on April 5, the federal cabinet approved in principle the formation of the Regulatory Authority for Media Broadcast Organisation (RAMBO).

While announcing the cabinet’s “approval in principal” of RAMBO, Javed Jabbar gave a time frame for six phases which was to start the following month with the promulgation of the RAMBO ordinance and was to be completed by December with the grant of broadcasting licences. He said new radio and television channels were expected to start operations from March 2001.

Jabbar said there would be several categories of broadcast stations. Permission to broadcast news by the private channels, however, would rest with the authority. “News casting is an expensive business. The government intends to allow specialized channels in different disciplines,” he said.

On August 25, the information minister once again assured the new law would be introduced in the coming few months to allow private radio and TV channels. He pushed back the expected date for the start of private broadcasting from the first to the second quarter of next year.

Access to information act

One key commitment of the government that remained unfulfilled was to give people and journalists the right of access to information, in order to promote transparency in government.

On August 28, Javed Jabbar circulated a draft Freedom of Information Ordinance, 2000 for public debate, opinion and criticism. He said the document would be debated for 30 days, after which it would be given a final shape.

He said the ordinance was aimed at facilitating the collection of information by the media in a transparent manner and would ensure access to the information and freedom of expression.

However the CPNE rejected the draft ordinance and said it lacked in content and effectiveness the provisions incorporated in the earlier freedom of information ordinance of 1997 which was promulgated by a caretaker government but allowed to lapse by the previous government.

The President of CPNE, Arif Nizami the draft ordinance provided a procedure by which the officials responsible for dealing with applications for information could almost endlessly delay the process by making objections. The officials would also have the discretion to judge whether the applicant was even entitled to receive such information. He said that raising the question of whether someone was entitled to access a public record would defeat the purpose of such legislation.

He said the intention of the legislation seemed to provide very restricted access to certain innocuous records which would add little or nothing to citizens’ and the media’s understanding of the workings of government.

The IPI, after examining the draft ordinance, also felt there were fundamental difficulties inherent in the draft FOI ordinance. The most visible flaw was the failure to ensure that the FOI ordinance overrides other laws that impinge on access to information and as a result, the public in Pakistan will be denied a true and proper freedom of information act that would enhance Pakistan society and create open and honest government.

In a letter addressed to General Pervez Musharraf, the IPI Director, Johan Fritz, said there were other essential elements missing from the FOI Ordinance. These missing elements include, among others, the power to penalise officials who seek to obstruct access or who wilfully destroy records, the lack of an obligation to publish and the absence of a “harm test” and a “public interest override.” All of these missing sections will actively inhibit the public’s access to information and therefore contradict the very reason for which the FOI Ordinance was originally drafted. The IPI asked the Chief Executive to amend the ordinance to bring it into line with other freedom of information legislation around the world.

In view of the negative response from major national and international organizations, Jabbar assured that the suggestions would be considered seriously and the revised ordinance would be finalised by the end of this year.

However, on October 15, citing personal reasons, Javed Jabbar tendered his resignation as Minister for Information and Media Development and as Advisor to the Chief Executive on National Affairs. He defended the government and its policies and said, “I have resigned on my own. Nobody asked me to do so … I wish success for General Pervez Musharraf government in the difficult and challenging task ahead.”

The challenging tasks ahead …

While the pace of progress may have been frustratingly slow for most journalists, the government continues to publicly maintain its commitment to media pluralism and promotion of press freedom. While reforms of medial laws and institutions are vitally important, a much greater emphasis also needs to be given to the fundamental right of safety for all journalists.