A bill for journalists

The government is considering to pass a bill for the safety and protection of journalists

Kamal Siddiqi November 13, 2016
The writer is Director at the Center for Excellence in Journalism, IBA, Karachi. He has more than 25 years experience as a working journalist and tweets as @tribunian..

The government is considering to pass a bill for the safety and protection of journalists. This is a good move and needs to be welcomed, but comes with reservations on some clauses. Newly appointed state minister for Information, Marriyum Aurangzeb, has said that the bill will be ready by November 20.

In her discussions with journalists, Ms Aurangzeb said that the government wants to provide maximum security and safety to journalist community for which her ministry will take all possible steps in close consultation with the media. Her ministry, we are told, is preparing a draft summary keeping in view global best practices to provide health insurance facilities to journalists.

The bill that the government is hoping to pass is not new. It was introduced in 2011 by Professor Khurshid Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami and 21 other senators.

Of the movers, 15 have since then retired after completing their six-year term as senators in 2012 and March this year. Former information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Leader of the House Raja Zafarul Haq and the sub-committee’s chief Mushahidullah Khan are also among the movers of the bill. Clearly at the time, the bill was not a priority.

It was a forward looking bill which suggested a number of steps such as providing special jackets and all allied facilities such as water, food and fuel to journalists during coverage, especially in emergency situations and in case of a national calamity, accident or natural disaster.

It also proposed that journalists should be exempted from parking fee all over the country and get free medical treatment in government hospitals and if a journalist felt threatened and needed protection, the SHO of the area would ensure required security.

It also suggested setting up a journalists’ social security fund and a national journalists’ council to recommend steps for their welfare. But there was also a controversial clause in the draft law under which the Supreme Court could ask about the source of information in case of a matter of ‘national security’. Possibly this is why the bill has once again been given a new life following the change of information minister.

Everyone is aware that journalists in Pakistan work under poor work conditions. In many instances, their employers do not give them appointment letters and delay payment of their salaries. In that sense, it makes sense for the government to encourage media houses to address these issues. But there are bigger issues that remain ignored and in this the government so far has been unable to do much.

The biggest challenge is the culture of impunity. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist. Journalists are killed, attacked, injured and threatened by various actors.

Every year, the number of journalists killed or attacked rises. In almost all instances, there is little or no effort on the part of the government to nab the perpetrators. Even in instances where the alleged killers are arrested, there is  reluctance on the part of the authorities to take the case forward. This only encourages others to take the law into their hands.

We must not lose focus. The proposal to provide free parking or free medical care does not set a good precedent. The government would do well by not turning journalists into free-loaders.

Training is an issue where the government can do a lot but only if it takes media houses along. So far, the journalism schools at our universities are unable to meet industry requirements. Maybe that is where to begin.

As things stand, the information minister has also expressed a desire to help press clubs fix their state of affairs. A survey of press clubs across the country will show that they are in a state of disarray with one journalist body fighting another for control. One can only wonder what the government can do without stepping on too many toes. Possibly it would do well to start by stopping support of one group against another.

In the final analysis, the intentions of the government will decide how good or bad this bill will be. The fine print suggests that the government will be able to penalise media houses which are not following what it sees as best industry practices. This may be a source of concern.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2016.

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