The leaders of the new coalition Government in Pakistan have assured the International Federation of Journalists that obstacles to media freedom that have blighted relations with journalists in recent times will be removed within 100 days of the new Government taking over next week.
Asif Ali Zardari, co-Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and widower of Benazir Bhutto, the PPP leader assassinated in December, told an IFJ delegation yesterday that media reforms were central elements of the 100-day reform programme that will be put into effect once the new Parliament meets on Monday and a new Government is sworn in.
The PPP, Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Awami National Party emerged as clear winners in last month’s elections and together will form a new government. Zardari said there would be more open government with more television allowed into Parliament, changes in the discredited administration of broadcasting, repeal of laws such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordinance and the Maintenance of Public Order Act, and a fresh start made in building relations with media and journalists.
“There is real optimism that journalism will be made safer and government made more transparent,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary who is leading the delegation in Islamabad. “Once these promises are made good we will see new maturity in relations between journalists and those in power.”
The IFJ and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) have called for a national debate on the need for a fresh start for media and democracy in the country. A meeting of journalists, editors and media owners from all sectors will be held on Saturday to discuss plans to strengthen the ethics and quality of media, including a proposal to establish a National Forum on Media and Democracy involving the authorities, civil society, and media.
Earlier in the day the IFJ delegation, which includes Sunanda Deshapriya from Sri Lanka, also representing the International News Safety Institute and Mike Dobbie, from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance in Australia, will meet with President Pervez Musharraf who was the architect of emergency rule last year and its controversial media clampdown.
The issue of media safety will be high on the agenda following incidents on March 13 when cameramen and journalists were attacked, chased and beaten while reporting on a demonstration organised by the women’s movement of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM-H) outside the Karachi Press Club, according to the PFUJ. A media driver was taken hostage by armed protesters, who warned journalists not to broadcast video footage.
In addition, three journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the past four months. Five journalists were seriously injured when a bomb exploded at a politician’s press conference in Khuzdar, Baluchistan, in the lead-up to the national elections in February. Khalid Khosa and Hameed Baluch, both journalists with the daily Azadi, were reported missing in Baluchistan in the past two weeks.
The mission has met with major media, journalists who have been targeted by the previous government and officials responsible for media regulation. “There is a sudden change of mood in the country with anticipation of historic change,” said White. “But the challenges are still in place. If political will for reform materialises much-needed reform within media to improve the social and professional status of journalists across the country will follow.”
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The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries