Senate panel to investigate media censorship

Published: October 18, 2019
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Representational image. PHOTO: AFP

Representational image. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: The Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights on Friday formed a sub-panel to fix responsibility for the undeclared censorship imposed on Pakistan’s media.

In the meeting, chaired by Senator Mustafa Khokar, the senators noted that there was sufficient evidence to infer that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (Pemra) chairman and officials acted beyond their mandate and violated Article 19 of the Constitution.

The sub-committee has been tasked to specifically investigate, fix responsibility and determine whether; (a) the Pemra chairman is guilty of misconduct in light of Section 7 of the Pemra Ordinance, (b) whether Pemra officials are also guilty of misconduct and should be proceeded against for complying and implementing illegal orders.

The sub-committee has been given a months’ time to submit the report.

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The senate committee has directed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to assist the sub-committee in every way, including forensics of phone records of Pemra officials to determine how illegal orders were received, issued, and implemented.

The committee stressed that the findings should then be circulated by media organisations and journalists, along with the information that the Senate Human Rights Committee took notice and constituted a sub-committee.

It added that any future harassment or illegal orders by Pemra should be reported to the senate sub-panel immediately.

The senate committee underscored that the Parliament must rise to the occasion in the present environment to address the concerns. “No true democracy can thrive or function or even be called a democracy without a free press and freedom to express one’s opinion on matters not only political in nature but also otherwise.”

It noted that the framers of Pakistan’s Constitution recognised freedom of speech as a fundamental right [Article 19] with the intent to safeguard the right categorically through Article 8 – that declares void laws inconsistent with fundamental rights.

Keeping the Constitution on the forefront, the senate committee has confronted the matter of Pemra being used as a vehicle to undermine the implementation of the Constitution.

Furthermore, the human rights committee pondered writing to Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa requesting the Supreme Court’s intervention to safeguard Article 19 of the Constitution. Noting that the top judge had also expressed concern over media censorship, the committee said CJP Khosa was of the view that “such loss of political space may not augur well for the future of the country as a constitutional democracy”.

Earlier, the chief justice had observed that the reports of growing censorship were ‘disturbing’. He said such practices were a “serious threat to the democratic system itself. Constitutionally guaranteed rights of citizens ought never to be compromised for the sake of short-term political or governance advantages.”

During the meeting, the committee played two video clips incriminating Pemra – one of a leading news channel and another of a renowned anchor complaining about instructions to not air an opposition leader’s press conference.

The authority, however, denied the claims as its representative informed the Senate panel that he was unaware of any pressure or instructions being passed to media outlets to enforce censorship.

Article 8: Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of Fundamental Rights to be void

(1) Any law, or any custom or usage having the force of law, in so far as it is inconsistent with the rights conferred by this Chapter, shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void.

(2) The State shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the rights so conferred and any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of such contravention, be void.

(3) The provisions of this Article shall not apply to–

(a) Any law relating to members of the Armed Forces, or of the Police or of such other forces as are charged with the maintenance of public order, for the purpose of ensuring the proper discharge of their duties or the maintenance of discipline among them; or

1[(b) any of the-

(i) laws specified in the First Schedule as in force immediately before the commencing day or as amended by any of the laws specified in that Schedule;

(ii) other laws specified in, Part I of the First Schedule;]

and no such law nor any provision thereof shall be void on the ground that such law or provision is inconsistent with, or repugnant to, any provision of this Chapter.

(4) Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph (b) of clause (3), within a period of two years from the commencing day, the appropriate Legislature shall bring the laws specified in 2[Part II of the First Schedule] into conformity with the rights conferred by this Chapter:

Provided that the appropriate Legislature may by resolution extend the said period of two years by a period not exceeding six months.

(5) The rights conferred by this Chapter shall not be suspended except as expressly provided by the Constitution.

Article 19: Freedom of speech

Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.

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