The Pakistani government is currently considering a new bill that, if eventually passed, would be the country’s first law on the safety and protection of journalists. While the draft text contains several points that would set a new precedent for protecting Pakistan’s media, concerns about the law’s implementation remain.

Undisputed is the need for safety legislation. Since the year 2000, 81 journalists have been killed in Pakistan, according to the International Press Institute (IPI)’s Death Watch. The majority of the victims were targeted due to their work. Impunity for the masterminds of such targeted killings remains the norm.

IPI spoke recently to Owais Aslam Ali, an IPI Executive Board member, the chair of IPI’s Pakistan National Committee, and the secretary general of the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), about the pending legislation. Ali outlined his thoughts on the draft bill and on the challenges and expectations for protecting the safety of Pakistan journalists.

IPI: What is the latest status of the bill for the safety and protection of journalists in Pakistan?

Ali: Pakistan has two houses within a bicameral legislature: a lower house, the National Assembly, and an upper house, the Senate. The bill was first discussed in the Senate, which has now sent a draft to the Ministry of Information for comment. Once the Ministry comes up with its version, the government must present it to the National Assembly and then to the Senate for approval. Finally, it would go to the president for his signature.

Usually, the government first presents a bill and then the Senate and the Assembly discuss it. But this time has been a little bit different. The Senate on its own has come up with a draft to send to the government. The reason for that might be that the last version [of a similar bill] was sent by the government to parliament and then rejected by the Senate. It did not even meet the minimum requirements for a safety bill to promote the protection of journalists. So it was a safety bill only in name.

IPI: Do you believe that this bill has a chance of becoming law?

Ali: Senate elections are going to be held in March, so I am not entirely sure if there will be enough time for the government to look at the draft that has been sent by Parliament to make any recommendations or changes and then present [back] to Parliament in time before the Senate elections.

IPI: What are some of the positive aspects of the bill?

Ali: The draft contained many weaknesses that need to be eliminated. There are some positive and negative points. But first I need to say why media and journalists require a special consideration.

Journalists who are killed are not killed for personal reasons. They are killed to deprive the citizens of Pakistan of their constitutionally guaranteed right to information. That is why they need special protection: not because they are journalists, but because the motive behind their killing is not personal but a matter of national importance. That justification is included in this bill, which is one positive point.

A second positive point is that the drafters have accepted the recommendation of appointing a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and the media. The special prosecutor may have access to law enforcement agencies or the intelligence agencies, which are sometimes accused of being responsible for attacks on journalists.

IPI: And what about the negative side?

Ali: On the negative side, from the information we have received, this bill, as did the previous one, does not accept that the primary responsibility for the safety of journalists and the media lies with the government.

All stakeholders have responsibility and should also be mindful of the need to protect journalists. But it is not up to individual journalists to ensure that police investigations take place or to end the near absolute impunity that has been enjoyed by those who murder and attack journalists. Therefore, first of all, the government has to accept in the bill that it has this primary responsibility. Then media houses and individual journalists themselves can contribute to safety by exercising best practices. Until the government accepts this responsibility, everything else is of secondary importance.

A second point is that the bill places a far greater emphasis on compensation to the families of those who are murdered rather than on ensuring a safe atmosphere and ending impunity. With regards to the latter point, there should be officials who are held accountable and there must be a mechanism for them to report on what progress has been made in the investigation. This is something the office of the special prosecutor may be able to take up, and follow up on cases of impunity.

The bill has suggested that there should be a commission to examine whether a murder was indeed motivated by the victim’s journalism rather than by personal reasons. If so, they will give grants to the victim’s family. However, there is already a National Commission on Human Rights. They should be the ones following up on cases of attacks and murders of journalists rather than setting up yet another commission that I believe in the end may be very effective.

IPI: If the bill passes, do you think it will be effectively implemented so as to improve the safety and working conditions of journalists in Pakistan?

Ali: There are already laws in Pakistan that can promote the safety of journalists. But they need to be made more effective first. There are also laws that are hindering the safety or promoting the insecurity of journalists. They need to be removed.

For example, the law allowing for payment of blood money for people who are murdered needs to be removed along with many others. After that happens, the gaps should be covered in the current bill. That is a far more effective mechanism than starting from scratch. There also may be conflicts between the existing laws and the new law being planned.

From what has been presented to the public so far, the bill does not meet the minimum requirements to effectively promote the safety of journalists. It will only be effective if the government says: “Yes, we take responsibility of protection of journalists and we are ready to be held accountable.”

Interview: Renan Akyavaş