WHEN reporters asked Prime Minister Imran Khan about media restrictions last month, he gave them a challenge: they had to show him any other country where the media enjoyed greater freedom than in Pakistan.
The prime minister’s assertion contradicts almost every assessment of media freedom in the country, which includes a recent report prepared by the European Commission on Pakistan’s compliance with the requirements of the EU Preferred-Plus Generalized System. The GSP-Plus trade status is an EU trade policy instrument that aims to encourage developing countries to comply with core international standards in exchange for trade incentives.
Provisions for obtaining and maintaining special status include the ratification and implementation of seven international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
While the European Parliament extended Pakistan’s GSP-Plus status for two years after reviewing the report, the European Commission’s assessment raises some serious concerns about the country’s human rights situation – particularly with regard to freedom of expression and the media – which, if left untreated, could be a barrier business in Pakistan maintains the benefits of the GSP-Plus trade in the coming years.
The European Commission has noted “a serious decline in media freedom in Pakistan”.
The report noted that there had been “a serious setback in media freedom in Pakistan, a trend that began ahead of the general elections in 2018”, with national security widely used as “a pretext for cracking down on freedom of expression.” “
It highlighted “increased pressure by the security forces, with the tacit approval of the government, on those who have different views, including media representatives and human rights defenders”. It details intimidation tactics used against the media, and expresses concern that they often lead to self-censorship by journalists and publishers, which impedes their ability to continue to function.
The report also shows how cable operators are prohibited from broadcasting certain networks, and how the distribution of certain newspapers is very restricted in the country.
Some of these concerns have also been raised by the UN Human Rights Committee in observing its conclusions about Pakistan’s implementation of the ICCPR in 2017. The Committee recommends that Pakistan ensure that “criminal law is not used improperly against journalists and dissent” and review the legal provisions relating to freedom of expression, including laws related to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Agency.
Significantly, the European Commission report stated that for Pakistan to comply with GSP-Plus requirements, it “must demonstrate that they will concretely increase its efforts and take more proactive and sustainable actions to … deal with problem areas” identified in the review.
It is unfortunate that instead of resolving to address the concerns raised by the European Commission, the government has further increased media restraints and dissent since the GSP-Plus update.
Take, for example, the arrest of Mir Shakilur Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, who was arrested on March 12 by the National Accountability Bureau for the charges relating to a 34 year old transaction. According to Jang Group, over the past 18 months, NAB sent more than a dozen threatening letters to its staff for critical reporting authority.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also openly punished the Jang group, and in particular the news channel, Geo News, on a number of occasions because of his program being critical of the government. Mir Shakilur Rehman is now in NAB physical custody in a seemingly arbitrary detention until April 18.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Pakistan Human Rights Commission all cited the arrests as an example of journalist harassment and efforts to reduce freedom of expression and dissent.
In its review, the European Commission also noted the NAB partisan behavior, and asked the government to give the Bureau more autonomy to carry out its functions independently.
In particular, the NAB Ordinance allows physical detention of up to 90 days, which conflicts with a number of guarantees of human rights, including the right to freedom.
Determining the right to freedom within the ICCPR, the UN Human Rights Committee said, “detention of the court must be based on an individual determination that it makes sense and needs to take into account all circumstances …”
Furthermore, the committee has said that the court must examine whether alternatives to pretrial detention, such as guarantees, electronic wristbands, or other conditions will make detention unnecessary in certain cases. As in the case of Mir Shakilur Rehman, the accountability court gave indifferent and extended physical detention without a reasonable decision explaining why detention was needed.
The European Commission will consider this development when preparing its next review and recommend whether to renew Pakistan’s trade incentives under GSP-Plus.
Pakistani authorities should note that the Sri Lankan GSP status was suspended for several years after 2010, when the European Commission found “significant deficiencies in Sri Lanka’s implementation of the three UN human rights conventions relevant to benefits under the scheme”.
It is therefore important for Pakistan to take seriously the findings of the European Commission report, as well as the observations of the UN Human Rights Committee, and be in a position to show real and tangible progress in practice.
Failure to do so will double the people of Pakistan. Not only will they continue to lose the protection of human rights guaranteed by the Pakistani constitution, as well as international treaty obligations, they also risk losing potential economic benefits resulting from EU trade incentives under the GSP-Plus.
The author is a legal advisor to the International Law Experts Commission.
Published in Dawn, 12 April 2020
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