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Dawn Editorial 17 Jun 2020

Media: another blow

INDEPENDENT, truth-seeking journalists are all that stand between authoritarian governments and total lack of accountability. Little wonder, then, that the rise of ‘strongman politics’ across the world has seen corresponding attacks on press freedom in various ways designed to destroy journalists’ credibility and stifle their voice. These dictatorial forces have now claimed the scalp of Maria Ressa, acclaimed journalist and CEO of Rappler Inc, a Philippines-based news website that is frequently critical of President Duterte. On Monday, a court in Manila found Ms Ressa guilty of cyber libel and sentenced her for up to six years in prison. Reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr and Rappler itself were found guilty of the same. The conviction pertained to a story published on the site in 2012 that referenced an intelligence report linking a wealthy Filipino businessman to various serious offences, including murder. Mr Duterte has been particularly incensed by Rappler’s no-holds-barred coverage of his government’s brutal ‘war on drugs’, which under the guise of law enforcement, gives police carte blanche to commit extra-judicial killings.
Governments seeking to hide their corruption and human rights violations from the world have weaponised anti-defamation and antiterrorism laws to go after reporters engaged in the lawful pursuit of facts. They deploy social media trolls to smear journalists and news organisations as traitors simply for publishing unpalatable truths, and use conveniently vague laws against ‘anti-state’ activity to hound them through the courts. Ms Ressa is the latest in a long line of journalists made to pay the price for holding governments accountable. In September 2017, two Reuters reporters from Myanmar were convicted under the country’s Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years behind bars; they had been apprehended while investigating a massacre of Rohingya by security forces and Buddhist civilians in the country’s Rakhine province. International pressure led to their release, but not before they had spent 511 days in prison. In Turkey, even now, four years after President Erdogan’s media purge following a failed coup attempt, around 90 journalists remain imprisoned, mostly on spurious terrorism and defamation-related charges. Sometimes, the authorities do not even bother with the formalities. One example is Mahmoud Hussein, an Egyptian journalist working with Al Jazeera, who has been incarcerated without charge in his country for three and a half years now.
The media in Pakistan has been working under unprecedented pressure in recent years. Dawn itself has been repeatedly maligned for publishing properly corroborated news reports — once taken to court — and even on-the-record interviews with senior officials, simply because the content did not conform to the ‘sanctioned’ narrative. Shady business tycoons with connections in the corridors of power here have also brought completely untenable defamation suits against the paper for exposés of their criminality. An independent media is ultimately an ally of the people and therefore the bête noire of governments that look to serve themselves.


Punjab budget

PUNJAB’S budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 contains several headlines: significant relief in provincial taxes to businesses impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, much bigger public interventions in the social sector through the development programme and a large economic stimulus for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. Additionally, the budget offers substantial incentives for the construction industry, allows tax exemptions to private investors interested in collaborating with the government to jointly undertake new infrastructure schemes, and focuses on community development works for generating employment. The budget also carry some incentives meant to document the economy, besides making it easier to do business in the province. The purpose of all these measures is to rev up the provincial economy and create jobs by supporting businesses in turmoil because of the Covid-19 outbreak, which has wreaked havoc across the world, causing thousands of deaths and wiping out millions of jobs.
Indeed, Punjab in its budget for the next fiscal year proposes to do a slightly better job in dealing with the impact of the Covid-19 contagion on the people, the economy and businesses when compared to a similar exercise by the federal government. The province is not only aiming to mitigate the economic impact of the health crisis and reviving the economy through small interventions, it has also formed a framework for rolling expenditures that will allow it to release funds for development and current spending on a monthly, instead of quarterly, basis, against actual demand. The demand-driven fiscal management will help the province monitor and control its expenditures in an uncertain Covid-19 environment, which is likely to last at least until the end of the current calendar year. But its entire plan to help prop up the sinking provincial economy depends on one variable: will the federal government succeed in achieving its tax target next year and transfer to the provinces their divisible tax pool share indicated in the federal budget? Punjab received Rs473.6bn less than its indicative share from the pool this year, forcing it to sharply cut its development spending. With the virus pandemic threatening to further depress the contracting economy, few expect the FBR to meet its tax target next year. With its own tax collection consistently falling for the last two years and almost 80pc of its income coming from the tax pool, Punjab will soon find itself short of the resources needed to implement its economic revival plan.


Islamabad accident

CONSIDERING the fact that relations between Pakistan and India are currently quite frosty, the recent episode in which two Indian High Commission staffers were involved in an accident in Islamabad will need to be handled maturely and calmly. Though exact details of the event are scant, the two Indians were apparently involved in a hit-and-run accident in which a pedestrian was seriously injured. The two suspects were briefly arrested, and Rs10,000 in fake currency notes were seized from them. In reaction to the Indian officials’ detention, Pakistani diplomats have reportedly been harassed in New Delhi while police presence has been increased outside the Pakistan High Commission in the Indian capital for ‘security’ purposes. Another key incident in this recent chain of events was the expulsion of two Pakistani mission staffers by the Indians late last month. However, Pakistan reacted to this move calmly and did not engage in a tit-for-tat exchange.
Firstly, the matter in Islamabad must be properly investigated and handled as per the law if the Indian staffers are found to be in the wrong. Second, the matter should not be blown up out of proportion, and elements in the Indian media should refrain from hurling wild accusations that can further vitiate the atmosphere. It would be naïve to assume that bilateral relations will magically improve as there are a number of long-standing irritants that are poisoning ties between Islamabad and New Delhi. However, what can be done is for both sides to adopt a mature approach and prevent the situation from deteriorating any further. The accident in Islamabad should be handled with care, and hawkish elements within India must not be allowed to exploit a law-and-order issue and turn it into one of ‘national pride’. The trust deficit between both capitals is quite wide, but if seasoned diplomats from both sides handle the situation through official channels instead of engaging in media trials, incidents such as these can be defused and dealt with in a calm manner.


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