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There is no right without the right to freedom of expression: HRCP

Lahore : To mark the international day for Human Rights, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) organized a conference entitled ‘no right without the right to freedom of expression’, at the press club of Lahore; followed by a demonstration outside the club.

The speakers at the conference included Ms. Asma Jahangir, Dr. Mehdi Hassan, Mr. Ahmed Rashid, Saroop Ijaz and I.A. Rehman,

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

He recalled the promise the Prime Minister had made to the committee for freedom of journalists to have all cases of violence against journalists investigated. No action was taken. Instead conditions for media had worsened .The PM was not holding any press conference.

I.A. Rehman discussed the prevailing stifling environment which allows for no dissent or critical thought publically. In-fact the state has been so successful in barring information,  that most media and individuals increasingly revert to self-censorship even in private.  The startling development is even more surprising since taking place under a democratic setup.

Media and its evolution were discussed by Dr. Mehdi Hassan.  The lack of editorial control by the media as to what to disseminate and increasing role of state in gate keeping of news has left little depth in terms of coverage.  Despite the enormous proliferation in media and its coverage the superficiality of content is striking.

Ms. Asma Jahangir concluded the conference by reiterating the role of each and every citizen and civil society in the fight for these basic rights: a struggle which is imperative for the development of a real and transparent democratic setup.  She also asked journalists to revive their tradition of resistance and called upon the HRCP to monitor all cases of attacks in media throughout the year and support the working journalists in their struggles.

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 all around 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.

Intimidation and curbs on the media and civil society organisations in Pakistan today deprive a democratic society of the benefits that their actions can have in the form of ensuring transparency, accountability and fighting corruption. These threats do not all emanate from non-state actors. Many times, they come from agents of the State.

The widespread impunity for perpetrators of violence against journalists, media organisations and human rights defenders remains as well entrenched as ever. Violence against journalists and rights defenders not being probed, at least not in a meaningful manner, is intended to scare people into silence and to exercise self-censorship. 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.

Demonisation of non-governmental organisations and imposition of arbitrary and utterly unnecessary restrictions on their operations, activities and meetings are exceptionally alarming and unfortunate and clear attempts to gag them and prevent them from educating the people about their rights and highlighting problematic aspects of official actions.

It is distressing and most reprehensible that in many parts of Pakistan citizens are 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. This represents a grave denial of freedom of expression also. While such behaviour might not be too out of place in autocratic rule, democratic societies do not operate in this manner.

Legislation such as the cybercrime law legitimizing surveillance / invasion of privacy, as well as journalists not being able to operate in or report freely from several parts of Pakistan has vital implications for the freedom of expression, the right to know, and to access and disseminate information.

Arbitrary and inconsistent actions and inaction, by regulatory bodies like the PEMRA and contempt of court proceedings by the judiciary must at all time be compatible with international standards on freedom of expression.

HRCP is aware that under the strain and very unhelpful environment, the media can also sometimes lose its way and become party to censorship and persecution.  The media will lose its case if it does not maintain the highest standard of unity, integrity and propriety.

On Human Rights Day, HRCP also wishes to emphasise the significance of the right to information (RTI) laws in Pakistan. It urges civil society to commemorate the day with the resolve to assert this right and test and expand the openings offered through the effective use of RTI laws.

There is a general intolerance of those in positions of power of views contrary to their own. Pakistan today needs, more than ever, to guard against McCarthyism.

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