Free again, Pakistani media promises to be vigilant

April 14th, 2008 - 11:24 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pervez Musharraf
By Zofeen T. Ebrahim
Karachi, April 14 (IANS) Veteran Pakistani journalists have welcomed moves to lift restrictions on the media imposed by President Pervez Musharraf but say they will be watchful of the new government as well. “It’s a very welcome step towards strengthening freedom of expression,” Nusrat Javeed, a senior Islamabad journalist, referring to the introduction of a bill in parliament to ease the media clamp down, told IANS.

Javeed, who was among the six popular anchors barred from hosting current affairs programmes on private television channels for over three months, felt this was “a recognition of the power that media wields and of the fact that access to information is a reality”.

He, however, dispelled the perception that the new government was wooing the media and mending fences, thereby making the latter its ally in days to come.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Sherry Rehman introduced the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (Amendment) Bill Friday, the second day of the first regular session of the National Assembly.

Rehman hoped it would soon become a law. She termed the new bill the result of “a long struggle jointly launched by the media, democratic forces and the entire nation”.

Herself a journalist and spokesperson for slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Rehman promised the new amendments would remove restrictions imposed on the media.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” agreed Mazhar Abbas, the secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), but added, “Much needs to be done”.

“What we want are constitutional guarantees for the freedom of the press,” said Abbas who observed that even Article 19 of the constitution was vague.

On Nov 3, 2007, President Musharraf had declared a state of emergency in Pakistan. Hours after the announcement, over 40 independent TV channels came to a grinding halt, as authorities muzzled the media - which Javeed refers to as “incurable rebels”.

Curbs were put on the media through amendments in two media-related ordinances that barred them from printing or broadcasting anything that defamed or ridiculed the head of state and the armed forces. Those failing to comply could face a three-year prison term and fines to the tune of Rs.5 million ($82,000).

Restraints were also put on the media from printing or broadcasting material that would “jeopardise or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order.”

The curbs were finally lifted Dec 15 last year.

Prior to the imposition of emergency, there was a spate of highly vocal and critical media organisations, especially since the suspension of the country’s chief justice on March 9, 2007.

“It was the media that gave a new life to the lawyers’ movement,” said Javeed.

Terming the show of “collective defiance” of the military rule as “reality TV”, he conceded the “extraordinary situation” might have led to “irresponsible behaviour” on the part of media.

However, Javeed said that with unbridled power for the media comes a certain amount of responsibility. He conceded that the fledgling electronic media industry must have “overstepped in the past” and should now tread with care; otherwise the masses, who had reposed so much trust in them, would never forgive.

Abbas also said the time was ripe now for all media stakeholders to “sit together and have a consensus code of ethics”.

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