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Journalist Protection Act in Pakistan: A Vital Step Towards Ensuring Media Freedom and Safety

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By Aqsa Sajjad

Pakistan is struggling to enact legislation at the provincial level to protect journalists. On May 28, 2021, the Sindh Assembly at the provincial level unanimously passed the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Media Practitioners Act 2021. Subsequently, in November 2021, the federal level Protection of Journalists and Media Practitioners Act 2021 was enacted. However, more than a year has passed and the law has not been implemented in the remaining provinces.

Pakistan is one of the countries where the profession of journalism is particularly dangerous as journalists are not punished for violent attacks against them, and cases of such attacks often go unresolved. To ensure the protection and freedom of expression of journalists and other media workers in such a precarious situation, legislation has been enacted.

Pakistan had committed to implementing the United Nations’ 10-year Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists (Journalists Safety Indicators) in 2013. However, despite more than a year having passed since the enactment of the law at the federal level, the remaining provinces are yet to enact legislation to protect journalists.

Former Chief Reporter of Daily News Karachi and former Special Representative for Associated Press Islamabad, Hussain Sabiqah, said that any law or policy is based on public experience, observations, and results. The law of journalistic protection is of vital importance and therefore it is best for the journalistic community to come together and create their own law. He said that journalists are well aware of the complexities, ups and downs, and other issues of the field. If the non-journalistic class makes laws, they will prioritize their own interests and protections. Therefore, journalistic community leaders, clubs, and unions should work together on this bill.

Senior journalist Sher Ali Khalti said that due to the lack of government and political interest in Punjab, the media protection act has not yet been implemented. Civil society organizations, journalists, press clubs, unions of journalists met with political parties and politicians about this bill, but no politician presented this bill in the Punjab Assembly. In these consultative meetings, efforts were made to sensitize the seriousness of the situation, the lives and work of journalists, and sensitive issues such as kidnapping for ransom, violence, and displacement from home, in addition to the killings of journalists.

Owais Aslam Ali, Secretary General of the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), said that the importance of the protection of journalists has been recognized in the acts of Sindh and the federation, and the protection of news media has also been recognized. According to the law, no person or institution can take a journalist’s phone or laptop in custody, nor can they access their personal information without court orders. The protection of journalists and freedom of expression is necessary for a democratic society.

The Pakistan Press Foundation has been involved in the informal Sindh Committee on Journalism Protection Act since its inception. The committee is affiliated with the Pakistan Press Foundation and is specific to the Sindh Protection of Journalists and Media Practitioners Act 2021, which contains a unique provision that it will supersede conflicting laws, but not be superseded by other laws. However, the biggest weakness of the federal law is that it grants precedence to other laws over this act. This could be a significant weakness.

Media personnel will have to become aware of the Journalist Protection Act themselves. Every journalist should read this law so that if they see any violation, they can report it. The most significant feature included in the law is the “privacy” clause, which guarantees the protection of journalists and their news sources. Along with this, an important aspect is the inclusion of government seizure of journalists’ assistants’ tools of communication, such as phones and laptops.

Recently, journalists, including Matiullah Jan, Shaheed Islam, and Imad Yousaf, have been arrested for violating this law. During investigations, officials have questioned journalists and attempted to seize their communication devices. This is a violation of the law, and even government officials are unaware of it. In the case of Shaheed Islam, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officers themselves stated in court that they have taken possession of his phone and computer for transfer and are sending them for forensic analysis to determine his password.

Secretary-General PPP-F, Nafisa Shah, has stated that another critical aspect of the law is that it provides for compensation for journalists and their families in case of harm or loss. This law is an essential step towards ensuring the safety and protection of journalists and media practitioners in Pakistan. However, it is essential to enforce it effectively and eliminate any weaknesses that could lead to its misuse.

After the passage of the federal law, Lahore’s journalist, Shahid Islam, was arrested in January 2023 without any prior notice. There was pressure on him to disclose the news sources to the media outlets, and attempts were made to confiscate his communication devices such as his phone and laptop. It is clear that awareness of the law is crucial at this time.

Shahid Islam expressed his gratitude towards his journalist colleagues, unions, press clubs, media assistance organizations, and organizations who have protected the sources in the law. He said that their efforts have helped to resolve the matter to a considerable extent, but he also emphasized the need for media protection in Punjab.

As a student of communication and a professional journalist, Shahid Islam was mentally prepared to respond to this news, but it was not a movie action situation or a pre-prepared script. He had no idea that he would be forcibly taken into his house in front of his family. He did not know what to do at the moment; pressure was put on him to reveal his news sources, which were more valuable than his life. He could not betray his profession. In any case, he would try to come out of this trauma through his friends, but what answer should he give to his family?

Shahid Islam further added that neither our institution nor any organization has contacted me for counseling for mental health because my case has already been made public. We need counseling from educational institutions to journalism organizations to cope with the current situation.

According to journalist and analyst Mazhar Abbas, who is affiliated with Geo News, the introduction of national and provincial level laws regarding the protection of journalists is a good and important step, which can help take action against the violence against journalists. The law in Sindh is better than the federal law because it gives the commission the power to take moto notice, and the inclusion of representatives of other organizations in the commission will further strengthen it. Abbas says that “it is possible that the enactment of this law may not put an end to violence against journalists, but it may lead to the identification of those who commit violence.”

However, those like Asad Ali, who was targeted with violence in Islamabad in May 2021, and journalist Bilal Farooqi, who was arrested in September 2020 for sharing material against the military on social media, have little hope for this law. Asad says that the fact that he was targeted with violence just a few days after the introduction of this law is proof that those who are involved in violence against journalists have no regard for these laws, and this is the message that they want to send to the government that made them a target.

Bilal Farooqi says that the government makes these laws to protect the citizens, but then uses these same laws against journalists. “The person who filed the FIR against me has never appeared before the court, but the FIR has not been dismissed to this day. We all know who ordered this, and some action should be taken against it.”

Speaking about the law, Mobashir Bukhari said that the recent Journalism Law addresses digital, physical, and mental protection, but nowhere in the law is economic protection mentioned. During the previous government’s tenure, advertisements of many institutions were shut down, which led to those institutions not being able to pay regular salaries. After the advertisements were shut down, the owners received a big favor, and they not only reduced salaries but also fired employees on a large scale. As a result, thousands of journalists became unemployed.

According to the law, it is mandatory for all institutions to insure journalists, but mere lip service is not enough. For example, in the case of Saddaf Naem, his colleague journalist, Ghazafi Butt, brought Saddaf Naem’s dead body to Lahore, stayed with the body the whole time, and when I talked to him, he was crying hysterically. He went through a traumatic experience, but there is no policy of any media house for such a situation. While working for international agencies like Reuters, I received a highly dangerous threat in a bomb blast story as well as in another story. I received a call from London, and my counseling was done, and I was offered relocation to a safe place for a few days in addition to practical counseling. Although I did not accept that offer, it is an example that international media institutions include such things in their policies and also act upon them.

Mehmil Sarfraz, the Assistant Founder of Dawn Current and News Online, states that according to the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021, “it is the demand of any democratic society to create a strong culture of safeguarding journalists and their freedom, but the ongoing attacks on journalists still persist, revealing the glaring omission in our democracy to exclude impunity or crimes against them.” A fresh example of this is the case of investigative journalist Shahid Islam, who was arrested in Lahore by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on false charges, which he denies. This act not only aims to intimidate and harass a federal agency, but the way Shahid was arrested violates his basic human rights and freedom. The apprehended journalist was treated as if he were a criminal. He was also asked to reveal the passwords of his mobile and laptop.

Iqbal Khattak, the Director of Freedom Network Pakistan, says that the culture of impunity for journalists is the biggest issue for them regarding punishment. Those who do not have faith in free journalism continue to attack, threaten, and scare journalists, even murdering them. Such people are being strengthened that they are not being caught by the law. The aim of this new law is to ensure that punishment is delivered in accordance with the existing laws in cases of crimes committed against journalists.

Maira Imran is the Vice President of the Islamabad Press Club. She says that an important aspect of this law is the creation of a commission for the protection of journalists. This commission will have the authority to investigate and prosecute individuals who commit crimes against journalists, as well as provide legal and psychological support to journalists who are victimized. The establishment of this commission is an important step in the right direction for the protection of journalists and their fundamental rights.

According to the law, if a journalist is subjected to harassment or violence, the details of the incident must be presented before a commission within 14 days, and the commission will make a decision regarding the matter within that time frame. The commission is empowered to request any person or organization for documents or reports related to the incident during its investigation.

Associate Professor Shazia Tariq, who specializes in communications at the University of Punjab in Lahore, states that this is a good step for the protection of journalists. Journalists must be trained to avoid putting themselves in danger for the sake of ratings or engaging in risky behavior solely for competition. There is an urgent need to change the mindset here. Pakistani journalists must learn new skills instead of being caught up in the rat race. We are still teaching old lessons in our curriculum, and it is necessary to include new skills. The protection of one’s life should be the top priority in any profession, and there should be some mechanism to reduce the gap between classroom and practical journalism.

The writer is a student of BS Journalism, semester 8 at School of Communication Studies, University of the Punjab, Lahore. She can be reached at [email protected]

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