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Dawn Editorial 27 February 2020

Media protection bill

BRIEFLY, it appeared there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Pakistan’s beleaguered journalist community. However, the outcome of the cabinet’s deliberations on the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill, drafted by the human rights ministry, has been discouraging. For it seems the government representatives have decided to club this comprehensive effort to create an enabling environment for an independent media with another media-related bill previously drafted by the information ministry. Such a conflation, one may be sure, is likely to culminate in a watered-down piece of legislation.
The bill drawn up by the human rights ministry is worth adopting on its own for several reasons; a few are particularly worth citing. One, it premises the importance of ensuring journalists’ safety on their fundamental and inalienable rights as citizens, rather than being an ‘indulgence’ that can be withdrawn at will. Second, the bill unflinchingly lays out the real problems that journalists in Pakistan face, and addresses the critical issue of impunity by setting up a seven-member commission — led by a former Supreme Court judge — with wide-ranging powers of investigation and redressal. The statutory body would be duty-bound to investigate and prosecute within 14 days all forms of harassment, coercion and violence against media professionals — including forced or involuntary disappearances, kidnapping, abduction, etc. Third, the draft stipulates that counterterrorism or national security laws shall not be used arbitrarily to detain journalists or hinder their work. In a repressive environment where the ‘national security’ argument has been speciously used to slap treason and cyberterrorism charges on media workers, this is an important consideration. Moreover, when journalistic work crosses the line into defamation or incitement to violence, the bill says the penalty must be based on “principles of legality, necessity and proportionality”. In sum, it is a well-considered piece of proposed legislation, marked by clarity and conducive to achieving tangible results.
The media in Pakistan is reeling under unprecedented pressure. Various quarters including political actors, security agencies, etc, seek to censor information they perceive as damaging to them — and they will go to any length to achieve their objective. There is thus a dire need for substantive legislation to ‘protect the messenger’. In the last 10 days alone, two journalists have been murdered in Pakistan, quite possibly on account of their work. Their deaths underscore the perils that members of the press in this country must contend with if they cross powerful vested interests. Pakistan ranked eighth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index 2019, with 16 unsolved murders of media practitioners over the past decade. Since 1994, only three out of over 60 such cases have seen any success in terms of prosecution. The government now has a golden opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to press freedom. The question is, will it venture into this uncharted territory?


Riots in Delhi

THE images coming out of the Indian capital are truly chilling.
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, the country’s much-trumpeted claims of being a secular republic have been thoroughly exposed as the storm troopers of the Sangh Parivar have rampaged through New Delhi. At the time of writing nearly 30 deaths had been reported in the rioting that has been going on for the past few days, ostensibly between those who oppose the new Indian citizenship law — who are predominantly Muslim — and those who favour the divisive legislation — who are mostly Hindu.
There are reports of mosques being set afire, goons barging into Muslim homes, and police officers forcing injured protesters to chant pro-Hindutva slogans. It would be naive to ask where the administration is in all of this; it is clear that the state — the Hindutva state — is part and parcel of this ugly situation. The Delhi chief minister, who belongs to a party opposed to the ruling BJP, has asked for the army to be called in and curfew to be imposed to control the situation.
At the moment, the Indian state’s primary duty should be to control the violence and prevent it from spreading further. This, of course, is not the first time India has been rattled by spasms of communal bloodletting; the slaughter of thousands of Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination; the violence following the razing of the Babri Masjid by Sangh Parivar zealots, and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, when Narendra Modi was chief minister of that state, are grim reminders of India’s history of religious violence.
But this time things are different mainly because the dispensation that rules New Delhi has amidst its ranks some virulently anti-Muslim elements, while hate material can spread like wildfire through social media.
Therefore, the capital needs to take stringent steps to ensure religiously motivated violence does not spread, and specifically that India’s minorities are protected from bloodthirsty mobs. It is a tad ironic that the violence in the Indian capital was happening around the same time that US President Donald Trump was being feted at an official banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan. What is more ironic is that Mr Trump praised Mr Modi for his commitment to religious freedom.
If the BJP government’s brutal record in India-held Kashmir, its divisive legislation, and soft corner for Muslim-baiting Hindu zealots are anything to go by, this praise is wholly unearned and the global community must have the courage to call out the Indian state for its bigotry.


Karachi gas leak

MORE than 10 days have passed since what appeared to have been a mysterious gas leak claimed 14 lives and affected hundreds of others near Karachi’s port. Questions have been raised, multiple inquiries launched, and various far-fetched and probable theories floated, both in private circles and in the public domain. And yet the absence of clear answers from the concerned authorities and provincial government is baffling. With no new patients being admitted to hospitals, the incident may soon be forgotten, but it has exposed massive governance lapses. Even now, we have not ascertained the source or type of gas that led to the deaths of so many and caused some 250 people to fall sick. If the authorities cannot provide answers to questions raised by a concerned public — or worse, if they are involved in some sort of a cover-up and deliberately concealing information — it only leaves citizens vulnerable to future environmental and industrial threats, as they will be forced to make sense of one tragedy after another. One cannot help but wonder what — if any — system of industrial checks is in place, and what would the government do if an even bigger tragedy were to unfold? Or are we supposed to live according to the law of the jungle, with each citizen looking out for themselves?
Industrial accidents and gas leaks pose a constant threat to workers and the general public, and there is no room for negligence or ambiguity in such matters of life and death. Memories of the Bhopal disaster — when in 1984 a gas leak from a pesticide plant endangered the lives of 600,000 people, killing around 15,000 of them — were awakened once again. Even decades later, residents of the city continue to suffer from the aftereffects of the toxic fumes, its residue left behind in the environment and groundwater. It is not clear if any lessons from the most recent tragedy in Karachi have been learnt. Welcome to the jungle.


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