AN extraordinarily unwise and provocative idea, rather than having been discarded after due reflection, is instead being embraced by the PTI government.
The federal cabinet on Tuesday approved the setting up of ‘media courts’, ostensibly to expedite the disposal of media-related complaints within 90 days. This was followed by the government spokesperson, Firdous Ashiq Awan, saying the bill is to be presented in parliament, with media organisations brought on board later if it is passed.
According to the plan, Pemra and the Press Council of Pakistan will refer cases to these ‘tribunals’ which will be monitored by the superior courts.
On Thursday however, Ms Awan appeared to backtrack a little and said that the draft had not been finalised, and no decision will be taken without consulting the stakeholders.
These qualifiers notwithstanding, no one buys the fiction that such courts are desired for any benign purpose.
After at least a year of unrelenting assault on the freedom of the press, we can be sure the proposed tribunals will be yet another device to harass and persecute outspoken journalists.
Of course, no government relishes a truly free and independent media. Military dictatorships by definition are the most authoritarian extreme, and a compliant media is the conduit for promoting their one-dimensional narrative.
The press during Gen Zia’s regime was made to submit to the indignity of censors at the Press Information Department vetting every news report, and later, to a plethora of ‘press advices’.
Even democratic governments would like nothing better than to police the media. In 2017, for instance, during the PML-N government, the proposed Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority would have required newspapers to renew their licence on a yearly basis — a brazen ploy to ensure compliance. The government, however, hastily retreated in the face of vociferous opposition from journalists and civil society.
The PTI government has now gone a step further in its indifference to the furore that erupted at the suggestion of media courts a couple of months ago.
An independent press is supposed to hold the authorities’ feet to the fire; for the government to insert itself into the system that regulates the media presents an obvious conflict of interest. One can, in fact, ask whether this latest move has anything to do with television anchors of late becoming a tad more critical of the government’s performance, something that has undoubtedly discomfited some PTI legislators.
Instead of acquiring the reputation of a regime that recalls the darkest days of censorship, the government should strengthen Pemra and PCP by respecting their autonomy rather than proposing a system whereby they would function as mere post offices.
Moreover, if they are indeed set up, what punishments will the courts be empowered to mete out? Should we expect public floggings of journalists, as in the days of Gen Zia?
Khursheed Shah’s arrest
SENIOR PPP politician and lawmaker Khursheed Shah has landed where he was expected to a long time ago. He belongs to a party that has forever been fighting allegations of its leaders amassing assets beyond their declared sources of income.
Of late, however, it appeared that the PPP had been given competition, even overtaken, by PML-N members — numerous stories about the latter’s allegedly corrupt ways have been doing the rounds.
Mr Shah’s arrest by the National Accountability Bureau has rectified the balance and once again brought into focus the PPP’s dubious reputation as a party that condones corruption within its own ranks. The newest arrest will intensify the battle in the country’s political arena. Government ministers might say they have played no part in Mr Shah’s arrest, but that has not prevented PTI activists from gleefully celebrating the capture of the seasoned parliamentarian.
It is not surprising that the opposition parties have been insisting, with some justification, that the arrest reflects the vengeful nature of the current accountability drive — an impression that no amount of rhetoric on the need for accountability of the mighty can dispel. They view the controversial drive as a scheme that targets not simply legislators accused of corruption, but parliament as a whole.
Regrettably, the government does not mind being blamed for trying to undermine parliament whenever an opportunity presents itself. Nor do the rulers seem to be concerned at the flak that NAB gets over the manner in which it selects individuals and then proceeds against them. The PTI conveniently maintains that NAB is an invention of the parties which were in power then and are in opposition now, ie the PPP and PML-N.
Indeed, this view would have secured the government some brownie points had it not been for the sheer defiance of common sense betrayed by NAB’s operations. No investigating authority can retain its neutrality and escape critical censure and public outcry if it appears too sluggish or eager in its methods. The accountability bureau is far too slow in its investigations — but loses no time when it comes to identifying and then arresting suspects.
There is little sense in holding suspected individuals for so long, and exploiting, even abusing, the provision for physical remand. If it has concrete reasons for its actions, and evidence to support them, NAB must process the cases against Mr Shah and the others quickly and let the courts decide.
THE jury is still out on the details surrounding the death of Nimrita Chandani, a final-year student at the Bibi Aseefa Dental College in Larkana. The judicial probe formed at the request of the Sindh government will hopefully shed more light on the tragic incident. Meanwhile, anger is rising. Protests have been held in several cities of the province, including Mirpur Mathelo, Larkana and Hyderabad. Demonstrations have also been held in Karachi by students, along with members of civil society and the medical fraternity that tend to support Nimrita’s family’s claim that she was murdered and did not take her own life. Hopefully, the protests will put pressure on the authorities not to slacken, though it must also be understood that speculation will cause more confusion, and only a thorough, uninterrupted probe can clarify matters. Whatever the circumstances of her death, ready judgements might hamper an impartial probe, besides making it more difficult for her family to cope in their hour of grief.
In the backdrop of targeted violence against Hindus — especially the recent violence in Ghotki and Mirpurkhas — and the issue of forced conversion of Hindu girls, it is no surprise that Nimrita’s community feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hence, it was heartening to see civil society rallying together for the protection of minorities. The protest in Karachi was also attended by the leader of a religious party. Participants demanded another judicial inquiry into the desecration of temples in Ghotki, following an incident of alleged blasphemy by a Hindu school owner earlier in the week. As disturbing as the violence (that also damaged businesses owned by the Hindu community) in Ghotki was, it was reassuring to see images on social media showing Muslims sitting inside the temples to prevent further destruction by a raging mob. These intermittent displays of support by people belonging to the majority faith show that there are pockets of tolerance that might help the country overcome its larger demons.