Karachi: Though the government of Pakistan has accepted and noted the recommendations of decriminalization of defamation laws in second Universal Period Review (UPR), a United Nations instrument for member countries to ensure compliance on Human Rights, however journalists in Pakistan continue to be convicted and charged under Anti Terror Laws.
The Anti Terrorism Court (ATC) has recently convicted two journalists for seven years each with rigorous imprisonment, making it first ever case of conviction to journalists under Anti Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 in district Naushahro Feroze of Sindh province. The conviction has not only alarmed but emerging trend of charging journalists under ATA has baffled many when another journalist Izhar Mari of Mehran TV channel was arrested in Shaheed Benazirabad (a district renamed after Ms Benazir Bhutto, former chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party) district known as Nawab Shah.
However, ATC conviction has been set aside by Sindh High Court, Sukkur Bench, on the appeal of the journalists. On 9 May, 2017 both Akhlaque Jokhio and Qurban Gadahi of weekly Sahti Jo Awaz were released from Sukkur Central Prison of north Sindh.
Lala Asad, office bearer of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), who was closely following the case, told Truth Tracker that after the earlier conviction, the trend of charging journalists under ATA has emerged in the area, as an accountant of District Police Office Naushahro Feroze filed an application in Court against journalists Zahid Rajpar of Samaa TV, his wife Rohi Bano, Younis Rajpar of ARY news, Mustafa Tagar of Geo news, Mazhar Khaskheli and Murtaza to be charged under ATA and defamation as they were demanding “Bhatta” (extortion money).
While in Mithiani, a town on the right bank of Indus River in Naushahro Feroze district, Imtiaz Bhatti of Sindh TV, Illahi Bux Bhatti of daily Ibrat, Masroor Chandio, Dr. Barkat Malik and Rana Sarwar have been facing same lawsuits against them in lower courts followed by rift with a police officer on the removal newspapers stall.
Zahid told Truth Tracker that they had actually reported on the illegal appointment of a constable cum clerk as an Account officer exposing his alleged corruption; consequently the appointee registered false cases against journalists under ATA. In defiance of the charges, many journalists held sit-in in front the office of the Deputy Inspector General Police Shaheed Benazirabad division Farhat Ali Jonejo, who assured them legal action and fair inquiry into the matter.
Advocate Shabir Shar, member Pakistan Bar Council and the counsel for journalists while talking to Truth Tracker raised serious concerns on the conviction and observed that when ATA section was not proved against both journalists, there was no point of conviction under defamation by ATC.
Shar said that while the offense was bailable, it took them three months for the bail and arguments were heard by the court which does not happen in such cases mostly but did because of the complainant exerted political and financial influence.
Section 6 (k) of ATA reads that an extortion of money (bhatta) or property by force will be considered as an act of terrorism and it has been used against journalists; section 7 deals with punishments.
As per reports, three Journalists of Badin district, Sindh Murtaza Memon, Mehruddin Mari and Hajan Khan Lashari were booked under ATA in 2015.
Previously, on November 20, 2013 Police in Southern Kohat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province charged under ATA a journalist Farhan Ahmed Bangash, a reporter of Royal TV for “fanning violence”. He was released after 14 days, getting bail from Peshawar High Court.
According to National Press Club Islamabad, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) police filed a case against a journalist Shabbir Siham, under the anti-terrorism act on the complaint of G-B Information Minister on March 20, 2017 for allegedly publishing ‘fake news’ and extorting the minister.
Dr. Ashothama, coordinator of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Sindh Task Force observed that use of special courts or Laws against any person, including Journalists, should be discouraged as it does not give appropriate opportunity of defense to the accused.
While responding to Truth Tracker’s question Ashothama further added that allegations of blackmailing by journalists and cases under ATA should be thoroughly investigated by both police officials and media unions as well.
Asad, responding to question of Truth Tracker about PFUJ’s role in investigating the involvement of some journalists in blackmailing or financial corruption, said that PFUJ has categorically decided to properly investigate such allegations, employing relevant union of journalists or press club and, in case of proof, stern action would be taken.
According to media reports, over seven journalists including Hafiz Hasnain of Okara district of Punjab province and Quetta, Balochistan journalists faced arrests and registration of cases under ATA; while a journalist Ali Raza Rind of Dalbadin, Balochistan’s name was put on Fourth Schedule (alleged Terrorists Watch List). Any person whose name is placed in said schedule will have to report at concerned local police station on daily basis and Rind was accused of having contacts with the outlaw Balochistan Liberation Army.
Aamir Sohail, secretary general, Punjab Union of Journalists (PUJ) expressed concerns on registration of cases against journalists under anti terror laws and stated that PUJ not only held protests demonstrations but engaged with government of Punjab and Police hierarchy to stop such practices and to provide some relief to the journalists.
ATC Mirpurkhas, Sindh had awarded a 17-year rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 17, 000 to columnist Ayoub Khoso and the publisher cum owner of the daily Alakh, Zahoor Ansari in a case registered in 1999, under blasphemy and ATA. On October 18, 2002, the verdict was set aside by a division bench of Sindh High Court, Hyderabad circuit, and the case was sent back to the trial courts.
Advocate Shabir Shar while responding to a question by Truth Tracker suggested that aggrieved party can file suit of damages against builder who is lawyer as well and journalists can file reference in Supreme Judicial Council. He regretted that little has been done in lower judiciary and special courts for the eradication of corruption.