Govt urged to revise laws affecting media
KARACHI, Jan 23: Speakers at a seminar on Friday urged the government to revise the existing laws that affect the press and enforce new ones in consultation with working journalists.The seminar, which was titled “Press laws in Pakistan”, was organized by the Karachi Union of Journalists at the Karachi Press Club.
The speakers also demanded that newsman Khawar Mehdi, who is allegedly under detention by intelligence agencies, be released and, if accused of any wrongdoing, be tried in a court of law.
Former governor of Sindh, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, said the government officials often asserted that they had allowed absolute freedom of expression in the country.
He maintained that freedom of expression in Pakistan had been achieved by intrepid journalists who had rendered great sacrifices and, in some cases, laid down their lives.
He said a country needed two things: a constitution and an independent judiciary. He regretted that successive governments had not only changed the constitution beyond recognition but had also robbed the judiciary of independence.
Mr Ebrahim said: “It is often said that the real author of the Legal Framework Order is President Gen Pervez usharraf. I maintain that [former chief justice of Pakistan] Irshad Ahmed Khan is the real author of the LFO. Nobody had asked the Supreme Court to give the government three years. “But the apex court gave the government three years. Similarly, nobody had asked for the powers to amend the constitution. But the Supreme Court empowered the chief executive to amend the constitution.”
He quoted a chief executive order and said: “All judges who ceased to be judges under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) will be deemed to be 65 and will get full pension”. He said it was not clear which Supreme Court judges had not been allowed to take an oath under the PCO and which had refused to do so of their own accord.
Arguing that at the moment there were no press laws in the country, former senator Iqbal Haider argued that the four ordinances promulgated by the government in Oct 2002 were not in force. “These ordinances were promulgated by the government after the elections. The LFO, which is said to validate all the orders of President Musharraf, was enforced on Aug 21, 2002.
“Since these ordinances were issued after the promulgation of LFO, they cannot be valid. They lapsed after four months,” he explained. Journalist Hussain Naqi said political governments had also added to the list of the “black” press laws. “It was a government of the Pakistan People’s Party which amended the Official Secrets Act in such a way that the punishment of 14 years was replaced by the death penalty. I served a six-month term in prison under the act,” he recalled.
Iqbal Haider of the PPP admitted that his political party had made a mistake by amending the Official Secrets Act. He added that successive governments had promulgated only ordinances about matters relating to the press. “But there is only one act enforced by the parliament. The act – Newspaper Employees Condition of Services Act 1973 – was enforced by a PPP government,” he said.
Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I.A. Rahman, observed that governments in Pakistan had always tried to place curbs on freedom of expression. “In this country a district magistrate has the powers to confiscate and proscribe a book deemed to be against the ideology of Pakistan.
“If the writer of the book is a Pakistani, he can file an appeal with a high court. If he is foreigner, he does not have a right to appeal,” he said. Mr Rahman underlined the need for revising all the existing press laws in consultation with working journalists and all newspaper organizations. He also urged the working journalists to liaise with other members of civil society in their struggle for their rights.
Former information minister Javed Jabbar observed that though repressive press laws were in force in Pakistan, the level of freedom of expression was very high. “Though Pakistan’s ranking according to social and human development is 137, it figures very high on the freedom of expression index,” he remarked.
He wondered why the Karachi Press Club could not form a council when it espoused so many social and political causes. He said the press council established by a press club might not have the legal authority, but it would have the moral authority.
The KUJ President, Mazhar Abbas, and the KUJ General-Secretary, Fazil Jamili, also spoke. Meanwhile, a press release issued by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists says the PFUJ has called for the release of freelance journalist, Khawer Mehdi Rizvi, who continues to remain in custody at an undisclosed location, though his French colleagues, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau, who were put on trial for breaking the Foreigners Act 1996 by travelling to Quetta without special permission, have gone back to their country after paying the fine announced by a court of law.