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HRCP speaks out for freedom of expression

HRCP speaks out for freedom of expression

LAHORE: In order to mark the International Day for Human Rights, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Saturday organised a conference entitled “No right without the right to freedom of expression” at the Lahore Press Club.

The event was followed by a symbolic demonstration outside the club.

The speakers included Asma Jahangir, Prof Mehdi Hassan, Ahmed Rashid, Saroop Ijaz and noted journalist I.A. Rehman.

Saroop Ijaz focused on the existing legal system which, despite constitutionally providing for freedom of expression, dilutes it extraordinarily through eight “contra-provisions”. He also addressed other legal anomalies and judicial ambiguity on contempt of court that serve to negate the right to freedom of expression.




The fact of elimination of traditional communication channels between the media and state was pointed out by Ahmed Rashid. “Social media tools such as Twitter constrained to 140 characters, which are increasingly relied upon by the government to communicate news, allow for no depth, nuance or questioning of news. A lack of transparency of these mediums critically affects a citizen’s right to information,” he said.

He recalled the promise the prime minister had made to the Committee for Freedom of Journalists to have all cases of violence against newsmen investigated. No action had been taken and rather the conditions for the media had worsened, he said.

Mr I.A. Rehman discussed the prevailing environment which allows no dissent or critical thinking let alone questioning authorities. “In fact, the state has been so successful in stopping information that most media persons and individuals increasingly revert to self-censorship even in private,” he said.

The subject of media and its evolution was discussed by Prof Mehdi Hassan who also spoke of a lack of editorial control. “The increasing role of the state in filtering news has left little depth in coverage. Despite enormous proliferation of the media, superficiality of content is striking,” he deplores.

Lawyer and rights activist Asad Jamal said some points about the freedom of expression were necessary to reiterate. “Some clauses of the Cyber Crime laws are such that are extremely problematic. PTA has the authority to destroy material which they can term ‘anti-state or anti-national’ and this is a very vague term.” He said this had been the trend in several previous governments as well.

“Even now Pemra has the authority to close down channels, but when these channels are unilaterally banned, then it means their narrative is also being closed down completely and this is a dangerous power that the State has in its hands. It is a policy of silencing the ‘other’ opinion. People who go missing and then return like Wahid Baloch are silenced forever,” he said.

Asma Jahangir concluded the conference by reiterating the role of each and every citizen and the civil society in the fight for the basic rights -- a struggle which is imperative for the development of a real and transparent democratic setup.

She also asked the journalists to revive their tradition of resistance and called upon the HRCP to monitor all cases of attacks on the media throughout the year and support the working journalists in their struggles.

The HRCP representatives said it was distressing that in many parts of Pakistan, citizens were being asked to get permission and no-objection certificates (NOCs) from the authorities for the exercise of their right to peaceful assembly to discuss human rights and other related issues.

In a paper distributed among the media representatives, the HRCP said: “The prevailing state of freedom of expression in Pakistan should be of great concern to citizens, not just on Human Rights Day but round the year, because suppression of the freedom of expression compromises enjoyment of all human rights for everyone, not merely for the media or for the larger civil society. “The authorities must wake up to the State’s obligation to protect journalists and rights defenders from violence and threats related to their work, provide meaningful compensation for victims of violence and bring to justice perpetrators of acts such as targeted attacks, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, etc.”

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2016

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