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Journalists' Protection Bill Stalled in KP, Incidents of Violence Surge

asir Hussain, the President of KHUJ, confirmed that journalists are subjected to torture regularly.
by TNN Editor - 07 Aug, 2023 1599
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Salman Yousafzai

"That day when I came out of the sports directorate office, suddenly two people attacked me, one of them was masked. Both of them had sticks in their hands. They beat me and seriously injured me. I don't understand anything. Why are these people beating me? However, they were alleging that you have tortured our brother when I don't remember even touching anyone in my 28-year career."

These were the harrowing words of senior journalist Musaratullah Jan from Peshawar, recounting the terrifying incident that unfolded on June 20 this year.

He had gone to the Peshawar Sports Complex to cover inter-madrassah sports competitions as part of his daily routine. Little did he know that as he emerged from the gate after performing Asr prayer, he would face a brutal attack.

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"One person hit me on the back with a stick, then the sticks fell on my hips and hands. I entered through the gate and said to the person who hit me, 'You have gone mad, what enmity do I have with you?' Torturing like this? Meanwhile, a caretaker who was standing in the sports directorate caught hold of the man with the baton, and then people shifted me to the hospital."

Musaratullah alleges that the attack on him was a result of his investigative report exposing the 'use of stolen electricity in the Peshawar District Sports Office'. He claims that after publishing the news, he faced repeated harassment and false accusations from the concerned organization. "I think that as a journalist, I published this news with full responsibility. It should have happened that if this news was not true, they would have filed an FIR against me, and gone to court, but they took an illegal route and tortured me."

Later, upon the intervention of the Peshawar Press Club, the perpetrators admitted their mistake and sought reconciliation through a Jirga, adhering to the Pashtun tradition. Nonetheless, the traumatic event left Musaratullah and his family emotionally disturbed.

When contacted, the Peshawar District Sports Office acknowledged the resolution through the Jirga and offered apologies for further discussion on the matter.

Musaratullah's family members constantly worry about his safety, urging him to prioritize his well-being and protect their children. The prevalence of violence against journalists has created a chilling atmosphere, making journalists and their families vulnerable.

Musaratullah reflects on the challenging nature of practicing journalism in Pakistan, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where journalists lack protective laws. He advocates for the enactment of laws to safeguard journalists and extend support to them and their families during such distressing times.

Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act

The Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2019 was passed on May 7, 2021, during the Tehreek-e-Insaf regime, aimed at safeguarding journalists and media professionals. However, its implementation in KP is still pending, raising concerns among journalists in the region.

As per the act, every journalist shall be entitled to protection from interference in their personal life, family, and professional affairs. Journalists are prohibited from disseminating false information or publishing material against facts. The government is responsible for shielding journalists from harassment, torture, or exploitation by any institution, individual, or authority. In the event of harassment, torture, or exploitation, journalists are required to report their grievances to the commission within 14 days.

The bill ensures that journalists can freely pursue their professional affairs without hindrance, with the government legally obligated to preserve the confidentiality of journalists' sources. Journalists would neither be compelled nor coerced to disclose their sources.

Senior journalist and former president of the Peshawar Press Club, Shamim Shahid, highlighted that currently, journalists can only avail protection if their previous cases are investigated. However, to his dismay, none of the previous cases have been addressed, posing a significant concern.

Shamim Shahid expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the law, stating that the powerful circles hold most of the influence. He believes that despite the clear powers assigned to the police and the deputy commissioner in the law, they appear powerless in practice.

To gauge the magnitude of harassment and torture faced by journalists in KP over the past five years, the Khyber Union of Journalists (KHUJ) was approached. Nasir Hussain, the President of KHUJ, confirmed that journalists are subjected to torture regularly.

He recounted an incident where journalists were detained and had their mobile phones confiscated while covering an event organized by a new political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Parliamentarians. The KHUJ swiftly intervened, securing the release of their colleagues.

Nasir Hussain acknowledged that several incidents go unreported in the media, emphasizing the need for a bill to protect journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Over the past two years, KHUJ has taken various initiatives, including two conferences that brought government representatives and journalists together. Nasir Hussain stated that they will continue to push for the bill's passage after the elections, engaging with the caretaker government and the assembly.

Muhammad Imran, the Director-General of the Information Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, assured that the provincial government is actively working to protect journalists. The Information Department is making efforts to approve the Journalist Protection Act, acknowledging the government's responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of journalists. He invited journalists' organizations to consult with them, providing suggestions to expedite the bill's approval.

Previously, the provincial government approved the Journalists' Endowment Fund Rules to support journalists' welfare. This fund provides compensation to the families of journalists who lost their lives in terrorist incidents and aids those who were handicapped as a result of any incident, offering financial assistance of one million rupees and Rs. 200,000, respectively.

Increase in Attacks against Pakistani Journalists

According to a recent report by Freedom Network, an internationally acclaimed organization working for the rights of journalists, incidents of violence against journalists, media professionals, and media organizations in Pakistan have increased by 60 percent.

The report highlights a staggering 140 incidents of attacks and intimidation on journalists and media entities during 2022. This figure represents a striking 60% increase from the previous year's incidents. The capital city, Islamabad, topped the list with 56 recorded cases of violence against journalists, followed by Punjab with 35 cases, and Sindh with 23 cases, making the federal capital the most perilous place for journalists.

Iqbal Khattak, the Executive Director of Freedom Network, expressed grave concern over the violations of press freedom and the escalating violence against journalists in Pakistan. He emphasized the urgent need to address these distressing incidents, as they hinder the public's access to accurate information, particularly during times of political and economic crises.

Notably, Pakistan is the only Asian country where a law was passed in 2021 to protect journalists. However, even after a year and a half, this crucial law remains unimplemented in both the Federation and Sindh. Iqbal Khattak lamented that no journalist has received assistance under this law, leading to a disturbing rise in violence against journalists. From May 1, 2022, to March 31, 2023, Pakistan witnessed a concerning total of 140 incidents of threats and attacks against journalists within eleven months, averaging 13 cases per month.

Among the recorded cases, 51 involved direct attacks on journalists, causing damage to their equipment, homes, or offices. Additionally, 14 instances of online or offline threats, including death threats, were documented. Print media journalists were the primary targets this year, with 26 individuals associated with newspapers and magazines facing threats. Digital media journalists also endured 15 instances of intimidation.

Shockingly, eight female journalists and media professionals, including a transgender journalist, became victims of violence. One female journalist was physically assaulted while covering a political rally.

Iqbal Khattak called upon Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to fulfill his promise and establish a federal-level commission under the Federal Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act 2021. Such a commission would enable journalists to benefit from the legal protection that was designed to safeguard their rights and security.

Note: This story is part of the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) Fellowship Program.