The Sindh Assembly passed a landmark law on Friday to promote, protect and ensure the independence, impartiality, safety and freedom of expression for journalists and other media practitioners.
Pakistan ranks 145 out of 180 countries on the media rights watchdog, Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Reports of journalists being intimidated, threatened, beaten, abducted, harassed or even killed are not uncommon in the country, which stands as the fifth most dangerous place for the profession, according to the International Federation of Journalists.
In Sindh alone, at least one journalist has been killed in the current year. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least two were picked up and then released and one killed in 2020. At least 25 FIRs have reportedly been lodged against various journalists in Sukkur alone over the past 18 months.
The bill, Sindh Protection of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners 2021, moved by Sindh Information Minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah was passed unanimously on Friday, after it was reviewed by the standing committee on law and parliamentary affairs and human rights.
According to the law, the Sindh government shall take effective steps to ensure that every journalist and media practitioner's right to life, safety and security as provided under Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan are safeguarded.
Any person engaged by a newspaper, magazine, news website or any other news broadcast medium and persons working on a freelance basis for any such organisation is covered under the ambit of this law.
The legislation specifies that the government will ensure effective measures are taken to protect journalists and media practitioners from "acts of violence" and ensure that "counter terrorism" or "security laws" are not arbitrarily used to hinder the work of journalists.
The law, which was drafted in consultation with representatives of journalists and human rights groups, states that journalists should be able to work in conflict-affected areas without threats, intimidation, harassment or fear of prosecution.
"No person or institution, whether private or public, shall engage in any act that violates or threatens the right to life and security of any journalist or media practitioner," reads one of the clauses.
Moreover, it states, no government official, agency or institution will force, induce, compel, coerce, or threaten any journalist or other media practitioner to disclose the identity of the professional sources of information.
On intimidation, violence
Regarding harassment of journalists, it said that the government shall take necessary steps from harassment, violence, and threats of violence by any person or groups of persons or public or private institution or authority in both physical as well as online and digital spaces. "No act of harassment and violence committed against journalists or other media practitioners shall be exempt from immediate and effective investigation and prosecution," reads the law.
According to the law, threat or harassment will be considered as an act of violence.
Reading out the clause, Shah said that the government would develop and implement strategies to combat impunity for crimes against media. These measures would include monitoring and investigating of cases reported by journalists, media practitioners, their families, unions, media associations or civil society organisations working for the protection and security of journalists.
"We will coordinate with relevant stakeholders to implement best practices provided for in the United Nations Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity," he said.
During the legislation, Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan's MPA Khawaja Izharul Hassan moved an amendment requesting the government to bear the expenses of legal protection for journalists.
The house passed the amendment.
Commission for protection
Under this law the Commission for the Protection of Journalist and other Media Practitioners will be established to exercise the powers and perform the functions listed under the Act.
The Commission will comprise government and non-governmental members including representatives of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, All Pakistan Newspaper Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, Pakistan Broadcasters Association, the Sindh Bar Council and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Except for the chairperson, all members of the Commission shall work on voluntary basis.
According to the bill, the government shall appoint a chairperson who is or has been judge of the high court or a retired civil servant of BPS-20 and has demonstrable knowledge of, or practical experience in, the matters relating to law, justice, public administration and human rights.
"The commission will look into the complaints to be filed before it in respect of act of harassment, sexual harassment, violence, and threats of violence against a journalist or media practitioner, whether perpetrated by any person or groups of persons or public or private institution or authority," reads the law.
The Commission is to decide on any grievance or complained filed before it by a journalist within 30 days of receiving the complaint.
Moreover, the law gives powers of "Suo Moto" notice to the Commission for any attack on a journalist or media practitioner. The Commission is to report the government within 14 days.
A website will also be launched for the online registration of complaints and for monitoring cases under review of the Commission.
The government will also coordinate with PFUJ, APNS, CPNE and PBA to ensure provision of adequate insurance of and training of journalists who may be at risk of being attacked, injured or killed because of their work.
An amendment proposed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf MPA Seema Zia to give women more representation in the Commission under this Act was rejected by the house.