Press Gallery: Is this press freedom?
By Rana Qaisar
ISLAMABAD: The world on Tuesday (May 3) observed Freedom of Press Day, but in Pakistan’s capital city it was a day that saw the worst kind of state brutality with police commandos kicking and punching journalists in front of Parliament House. It was, no doubt, a “Suppression of Press Day” in Islamabad, where the “men-in-white” picked up forty journalists, who were peacefully marching towards Prime Minister’s House to stage a sit-in, and took them to Sihala police station where they were kept in the lock-up for two hours. The police registered a case against them under Section 188 of the Pakistan Penal Code for violating Section 144.
All this happened just when the state-run media, in its every bulletin, was reporting the day-long activities of Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed who had attended almost every function held to observe the Freedom of Press Day in the federal capital. He took pride as a “chief spokesman” of the Musharraf-Aziz government, which, he claimed, had granted unprecedented freedom of expression. A similar incident had happened on April 16, in Lahore and the government had assured journalists that “such a regrettable” incident would not happen again. But it did happen. Who ordered this, no one in the government knows!
The chief spokesman did not have any clue to tell the National Assembly as to who had ordered this brutality when the whole world was observing Freedom of Press Day. He was even opposed to the terms of reference, which Aitzaz Ahsan and Dr Sher Afgan had drafted, for a special committee of the house to probe into such incidents, which have now become a routine. He also did not agree to the language of the resolution calling this incident brutal and said: “Such words are not used for some organizations.” Are these organizations or departments above the state? But he prevailed and the word “brutal” was replaced with the word “sad”.
Thanks to Aitzaz Ahsan and other opposition members for their support to the protesting journalists for creating a consensus in the house to form a special committee to be headed by Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain to probe into this brutal incident. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain spoke to Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao who ordered for an immediate release of the arrested journalists. The information minister came to the protesting journalists at the gates of parliament only when the speaker asked him to bring them back to press gallery. But it was a bad day for him. This incident belied what he had been drumming up the whole day – media is free in Pakistan. No, Sir.
What would have happened, if the journalists had staged a sit-in in front of the Prime Minister’s House? Nothing. We are not a security threat to the man who is already living in a “bunker”. The journalists’ plan to stage a sit-in was not to create a law and order situation but it was only to convey to the “resident of the forbidden city”, who does not know about the miserable financial condition of the working class, that the effect of his “economic achievements” had so far not trickled down. It was also to convey to him that Pakistan is not how it looks from his palatial residence on the hilltop.
While all this was happening, rumours about a meeting between the general-president and Hamza Shahbaz, son of Shahbaz Sharif, was rife in Islamabad. However, it remained unconfirmed. But the possibility of such a meeting could not be ruled out at a time when the general-president had made a surprise appearance at the wedding ceremony of the son of Raja Nadir Pervez – a core leader and parliamentarian of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). There are also reports that the “powers-that-be” are also in contact with the Sharifs in Jeddah. So the possibility of the general-president’s meeting with Hamza Shahbaz could not be dismissed.
However, his participation in the wedding ceremony, first public contact with PML-N since October 12, 1999, is being seen as a political move to neutralize the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians, which had recently gone hyper with a hope to come into power through a “deal” which all its leaders had thought was just round the corner. There is also a message that the general-president is keeping all his options open and that he has not closed his doors on to any political party. And if he can speak to Benazir Bhutto for national reconciliation why not with Nawaz Sharif who had once done him a favour by superceding his two seniors.