APNS stance not based on facts: Government -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

APNS stance not based on facts: Government

ISLAMABAD- A spokesman for the Ministry of Information and Media Development has described as unfortunate and not based on facts the contention of All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) that the draft press laws approved by the Cabinet were “absurd, preposterous and uncivilised pieces of legislation masquerading as Press laws.” Regretting the use of intemperate language by the APNS representative, the spokesman said that APNS was itself the author of the Press Registration law and thus equally deserve the invectives spelt out by its representative.

The spokesman said that the Press Registration law and the Press Council law have both been finalised after nearly two years of consultation with the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Council of Pakistan Newspapers’ Editors (CPNE). Original drafts for both these laws were provided by these bodies themselves. Only very minor amendments were made and those too were discussed with these two representative bodies.

The spokesman said, the Press Registration law has been the demand of the APNS itself as the publishers were finding it extremely difficult and indeed chaotic to bring out newspapers and periodicals in an orderly manner in the absence of any law, the previous one having lapsed five years ago. The then elected government could not enact the required law in nearly three years that it remained in office.

As for the law to establish a Press Council, the spokesman said that it will be an entirely independent body headed by a retired judge of the superior court and will be regulated by the representatives of the journalistic community with equal representation from the publishers, the editors and the working journalists. The Press Council does not have any Government representative at all and the four members to be appointed by the Government would be representing academics and scholars, one each from the four provinces of Pakistan. The government, he said, would be only too happy to consider recommendations from the CPNE even regarding appointment of these four academics from the Provinces.

The government, he explained, has reluctantly agreed to fund the Press Council on the demand of the APNS and CPNE who expressed their inability to pick up the cost. It was on the persistent insistence and continued demands of the APNS and to achieve a consensus Press Registration and Press Council law that the government accepted the drafts on both the laws from the APNS and the CPNE.

The spokesman said that no change of any significance has been brought in the draft of the “Press, Newspapers, News Agencies, Books Registration Ordinance 2002” which was the result of painstaking efforts of the APNS and CPNE keenly facilitated by the Government. The Cabinet approved the draft Ordinance in its meeting on August 31 this year.

In case of the Press Council law, the spokesman said, minor changes have been approved in the composition of the Council to benefit from the wisdom and counsel of the teachers’ fraternity through inclusion of one eminent educationist from each of the four Provinces. The membership of the APNS, CPNE and PFUJ in the Council has been rationalised and proposed membership of the FPCCI has been dropped to facilitate equal representation from all three stakeholders, i.e the publishers, the editors and the working journalists.

The spokesman emphasised that no government representative will be on the Council which will be a self-regulatory body of publishers, editors and journalists with representation also of lawyers, human rights activists, educationists and one representative each of the leader of the house and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.

The spokesman also clarified that the Defamation law, approved by the Cabinet, is not Press specific as it equally applies to the electronic media. Radio and TV networks have also been brought under the ambit of the law.

The spokesman disclosed that the Cabinet did not approve of the maximum damages upto rupees one million as was proposed in the draft defamation law and instead approved the minimum damages of Rs fifty thousand only if the charges of defamation are proved in the Court of Law. The Spokesman regretted that a Press report in the newspapers stated that the punishment for defamation under the new law is three years when in fact, it is only three months simple imprisonment.

The spokesman said that the sole objective behind the press laws is to ensure freedom of the press for which the government and the representative organisations of the Press have been working together for the last three years. There will be no change in that commitment of the government.

It is unfortunate, the spokesman said, that the APNS President, has proclaimed to initiate “a massive domestic and international campaign” against what he alleges “the betrayal by the Musharraf government of the freedom of expression and freedom of the press”. He would know better than most that it is the government of President Pervez Musharraf that for the first time in the history of Pakistan, allowed complete freedom to the Press and opened the state owned electronic media to all points of view. It is again this government that has allowed the establishment of private TV and Radio stations in the country. It is the Musharraf government that has allowed opposition politicians to criticise the government and the President himself live on PTV and PBC, a liberty no elected government even allowed to the opposition parties in this country.

Regarding the APNS objection to the minor changes/additions in the press laws drafted by the APNS, the spokesman said that the people of Pakistan can best judge these which are as under:

Section (6):

“The declaration submitted by the publisher under sub-section (5) shall be accompanied by an undertaking to abide by the Ethical Code of Practice contained in the Schedule to the Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance, 2002.”

This code of Ethical Practice was formulated by the CPNE and delivered to the Ministry of Information as part of the draft Press Council law.

Section-10(2) (c&d):

The applicant will not be allowed a declaration to print a newspaper or periodicals if:

(c) “The declaration has been filed by a person who was convicted for criminal offence and or for willful default of public dues.”

(d) “If the declaration has been cancelled or denied anywhere else in Pakistan.”

Section – 35

“Only such person or persons (by whose willful intention, mistake, negligence or ignorance of any material is published which is an offence under this Ordinance or any other law, shall by tried and punished).”

The spokesman wondered how could anyone protest the provision of refusal of declaration to a convicted person or to one who committed willful default of public dues. The spokesman added how could the government ignore a defaulter in the Press while all other sections of the society are subjected to similar laws debarring willful defaulters from public representation. The Press, the spokesman said, too is an important organ of the state representing public interest. How can a particular defaulter be allowed to represent the public interest while the other has been debarred from his right, the spokesman asked.

As regards the APNS contention regarding appointment of 9 out of 19 members of the Press Council by the government, the spokesman said that none of the 9 members being resisted by the APNS belong to the government and do not fall under the definition of government appointees. The composition of the Press Council is:-

i) Three members of APNS, ii) Three members of CPNE, iii) Three members of professional bodies of journalists, iv) One member of the Pakistan Bar Council, v) One eminent educationist each from the four Provinces (a total of four), vi) One members to be nominated by the Leader of the House in the National Assembly, vii) One member to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, viii) One nominee of any renowned human rights organisation having not less than then years’ standing, ix) One woman member to be nominated by the National Commission on Status of Women in Pakistan.

The spokesman said that the inclusion of the above members in the Press Council reflects the government’s intention to make the Press Council a body comprising of plurality of thoughts and sections of the society rather than any motive to overwhelm the decisions of the Council by non-journalists.

Regarding the APNS contention that in 1988, the Press & Publications Ordinance of 1962 was repealed and the newspapers were allowed publication without government’s permission, the spokesman said that the premise was factually incorrect. The Registration of Press and Newspapers Ordinance promulgated in 1988 made it binding to get a declaration from the district magistrate. The same has been replaced by the District Coordination Officer. The APNS protest on this count is thus misplaced, the spokesman said.

Regarding the APNS objection to exclude information with respect to the army and foreign policy and printing of minutes of government’s meeting and noting on files, the spokesman said that instead of hailing the government for making Pakistan a member of the less than 40 countries out of a nearly 200 who have introduced the Freedom of Information Law, the APNS has chosen to criticize it. The spokesman said that even the world’s so-called largest democracy India has not yet adopted the Access to Information law. Pakistan, he said, is the only SAARC member country to has adopted the Freedom of Information law. Should we as Pakistanis not be proud of this achievement, he asked.

Reiterating the singularity and objective intent of the Freedom of Information Law, the spokesman said that even the British law on the subject contains clauses of exemption from provision of information when it is considered reasonable that the information should be withheld from disclosure until a specified date.

As regards the information on foreign policy mentioned by APNS, the spokesman said that the British law also provides for exemption to provide information if its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other government or affect the economic or financial interests of the United Kingdom.

The spokesman said that the US Freedom of Information Act also provides exemptions from provision of information on trade secrets and commercial or financial information, inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters and personal and medical files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

The proposed Freedom of Information Bill in India pending legislation since 2000, also contains several exemptions, said the spokesman. These include the following:

i) information, the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, strategic scientific or economic interest of India or conduct of international relations;

ii) information, the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect public safety and order, detection and investigation of an offence or which may lead to an incitement to commit an offence or prejudicially affect fair trial or adjudication of a pending case;

iii) information, the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the conduct of Centre-State relations, including information, exchanged in confidence between the central and state government or any of their authorities or agencies;

iv) Cabinet papers, including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers;

v) minutes or records of advice including legal advice, opinions or recommendations made by any officer of a public authority during the decision making process prior to the executive decision or policy formulation;

vi) trade or commercial secrets protected by law or information, the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the legitimate economic and commercial interests or the competitive position of a public authority, or would cause unfair gain or loss to any person, and

vii) information, the disclosure of which may result in the breach of privileges of Parliament or the legislature of a state, or contravention of a lawful order of a court.

Compared to this, the exemption in the Pakistan law are just minimal including the following:-

a) noting on the files;
b) minutes of meetings;
c) any intermediary opinion or recommendation;
d) record of the banking companies and financial institutions relating to the accounts of their customers;
e) record relating to defence forces, defence installations or connected therewith or ancillary to defence and national security;
f) record declared as classified by the federal government;
g) record relating to the personal privacy of any individual;
h) record of private documents furnished to a public body either on an express or implied condition that information contained in any such document shall not be disclosed to a third person; and

i) any other record which the federal government may, in public interest, exclude from the purview of this Ordinance.

The government of Pakistan have also included such provisions and the declassification of documents is allowed after twenty years in such cases.

The APNS, the spokesman hoped, would take a dispassionate view of the new media or media-related laws, including the law on freedom of information, which is a major step forward on the road to democracy and democratic governance. He, however, emphasised that no law is written in stone as every legislation has room for amendments and changes which will no doubt take place in relation to these laws too as we move ahead with their implementation.

Source: The Nation