EACH day it seems there is a fresh assault on the fundamental right to freedom of speech. The arguments about ‘upholding the rule of law’ that are used to bolster such restrictions are specious and misleading. They cannot disguise the actual objective behind this campaign, and it is no less than a sustained campaign, which is to erase every vestige of dissent and discomfiting opinion from the public domain.
On Thursday, Pemra issued an order in response, so it claimed, to a complaint that some TV channels had aired the speeches of a proclaimed offender — clearly meaning Nawaz Sharif — and banned satellite news channels from airing any speeches, interviews and public addresses by proclaimed offenders or absconders. In its statement, Pemra repeatedly referred to its code of conduct, and to the Supreme Court’s emphasis on broadcast media’s compliance with it.
The aforesaid code of conduct often mentions the need for the electronic media to observe fairness and impartiality. But is Pemra itself practising what it preaches? How can it explain that in March 2019 it explicitly cited the right to freedom of speech when it dismissed a complaint against the speeches of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf and Allama Tahirul Qadri being broadcast, despite both individuals also being proclaimed offenders?
Or consider the fact that in March 2015, Saulat Mirza, a death-row prisoner was able to make a lengthy ‘confessional statement’ on camera from his cell without Pemra taking any action against the TV channels that aired it. The application of the law must be consistent in order to be credible. Given what has gone before, Pemra’s directive is clearly geared towards preventing Mr Sharif’s words from reaching the wider public.
In fact, censorship by the authorities is becoming a troubling pattern. On Friday came yet another prohibition order, in which Pemra directed TV channels to stop broadcasting news about the motorway gang rape, although this time it was on orders of the ATC in which the crime is being tried.
Giving credence to the police’s argument that media reporting was hindering the arrest of the prime accused, the judge in question said such coverage would “[diminish] the evidentiary worth of the material collected by the prosecution” and also “disgrace” the victim.
The media in this matter has largely conducted itself responsibly and protected the victim’s identity, despite the huge publicity the horrific case has garnered. If the court has any reservations, it can order the media to refrain from showing pictures of the accused so as not to compromise the identification parade. A blanket order such as this one serves no purpose.
Indeed, continuing coverage will keep up the pressure on law enforcement to do its job and ensure that both perpetrators are prosecuted. In the process, the “disgrace” will hopefully be placed where it should be — at the door of the rapists, not the victim.
Difficult to survive
INFLATION is again in the news. It jumped to 9pc year-on-year in September. Month-on-month headline inflation rose 1.5pc compared to 0.6pc in August when it climbed to 8.21pc, according to new Pakistan Bureau of Statistics data. Average inflation edged up 8.85pc during the first quarter of the fiscal, but remained within the 7pc to 9pc band forecast for the entire year and was lower than last year’s figure of over 10pc. The increase in the price of vegetables, chicken, fresh milk, pulses, wheat flour, sugar, eggs and other food items has contributed majorly to the rise. Non-food items contributing to the spike included construction inputs, transport and health services. Food prices increased 14.7pc as the rural population experienced higher hikes than urban dwellers. Prices are predicted to increase further this month if electricity and gas prices go up as the government moves to revive the $6bn IMF deal. The State Bank has already indicated the end of further monetary easing, which started in March to fight the economic impact of Covid-19.
A look at PBS data shows that prices have been rising in the country for over a year largely because of disruptions in food supply chains and periodic hikes in the administered prices of electricity and gas rather than a surge in demand for goods and services. Little wonder then that the State Bank has failed to curb inflation despite pursuing a tight monetary policy until the coronavirus forced the economy to shut down. High inflation comes with a heavy economic cost that low- and middle-income groups know only too well. Even a small shock in prices causes the poor to cut essential expenditure to survive. Indeed, many families have no option but to send their young children to work. High inflation is also considered a tax that erodes international business competitiveness and discourages investment as interest rates go up. Controlling inflation, especially consistent hikes in prices of food, education and healthcare, has always been a major challenge for the PTI administration which has failed to shield the economy and the poor from this scourge. Surprisingly, the action against what the government dubs as the sugar and wheat mafias has pushed up the prices of these commodities instead of bringing them down. With opposition parties likely to highlight the rising cost of living in their planned protests, the government is fast running out of time to provide relief to those at the bottom of the population pyramid.
Cancer on the rise
THE findings of a recent study conducted by the Dow University of Health Sciences have revealed that cancer of the gastrointestinal tract is on the rise in Karachi. This might not just be a coincidence, as the study indicates — Karachi is also the city with the highest prevalence of oral cancer in the country. According to researchers, this rise can be attributed to the growing use of tobacco products (one of the main causes of oral cancer) and the consumption of unhealthy foods. The study was based on data collected over several years from 2010 to 2019. The survey revealed that most of the cancer cases (around 60pc) were diagnosed in women as compared to men. The most common cancer among women is breast cancer, followed by oral and then oesophageal cancer, while in men it is oral cancer. The findings of the DUHS survey are not surprising. Research indicates that cancer, often a hereditary malady, is also linked to environmental factors and poor dietary habits, as in the case of oral cancer that affects those who regularly consume tobacco products, paan and betel nut. The increasing incidence of cancer in Pakistan has also been noted by other independent studies carried out in the country. A separate survey by the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences lists cancer as the second leading cause of death — the first being heart disease — in the country. The survey indicates that every year, around 148,000 new cancer cases are reported in Pakistan.
Poor environmental conditions combined with a dilapidated healthcare system and the recent hike in drug prices paint a worrisome picture for the hundreds of thousands of cancer patients in the country. Lack of screening facilities, and difficulty in accessing health services, also hinder treatment. The authorities need to invest in satellite centres of tertiary hospitals to enable screening tests while also ensuring that patients receive the required treatment. It is equally essential to educate the public on the importance of early diagnoses and treatment.