Local and foreign journalists have unanimously termed the arrest of Jang group’s Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman as an act of cruelty aimed at gagging the media, at the first-ever virtual consultative international conference.
Those in attendance passed a joint resolution, demanding Rehman’s immediate release and withdrawal of draconian restrictions on the press. They reiterated that the voice of the media is the voice of the society.
The moot was organised to discuss the overall situation of press freedom, particularly Mir Shakil’s detention for the past 114 days. It was aimed to bring together journalists, civil society members, lawyers, human rights activists, private sector professionals and policymakers together to primarily establish a coordination mechanism among different stakeholders.
More than 35 participants from the US, the UK, EU, Pakistan and other countries attended the conference. They observed that the unbecoming restrictions on media are damaging the image of the country before the world community.
Senior journalist Raza Rumi said the closure of Channel 24 was against freedom and democracy. He said that press freedom is not only a matter of concern for journalists, but it is also impacting the country’s democracy and society as a whole. “We will have to align with civil society and political parties and help them realise that this is their issue too,” he maintained.
Channel 24 Director News Mian Tahir said, “The seminar was highly needed at this time. “We protest the arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman and the words used by the Prime Minister Imran Khan against him.”
Pakistan Bar Council Vice President Abid Saqi said that when some governments are suspicious about their legitimacy, they use coercive tactics. He added that journalists should join the civil society and progressive political parties to raise their voice for the press freedom as well as launch an awareness campaign.
Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) Secretary General Nasir Zaidi said the current media crisis in the country was the worst ever being experienced in Pakistan. Such censorship, he noted, takes place during martial-law regimes. But now, he added, they have brought sophisticated restrictions with a democratic facade. He regretted thousands of journalists had been unemployed due to the government’s actions.
He said Mir Shakil’s arrest was a clear message to all the media that the press freedom was under threat. “Senior journalists should make a pressure group to deal with the situation,” he maintained.
Senior journalist from Dawn based in Washington, Anwar Iqbal said the media persons should discuss how they can be supported by the overseas journalists.
Senior journalist and anchorperson Hamid Mir said that July 5 has a deep relationship with the strangling of press freedom. “It’s a good omen that we are together on this day,” he remarked. He said that press freedom is related to democracy and no matter what kind of democracy it is, it is better than dictatorship. “We should say that we will always stay with democracy regardless of the political party in power,” he added.
He recalled that last year, journalists observed a black day in July and staged protests in 16 cities of Pakistan. “We were stopped, Channel 24, Dawn, Ab Tak, Capital TV were stopped and no channel, including Geo News, broadcast the story while papers did not publish it. But, we did break it on social media,” he said.
“We had warned the owners of TV channels that if you don’t stand with us, [then] tomorrow, they will shut you too. Today, we are all condemning Mir Shakil’s arrest, he said and added that All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and Pakistan Broadcasters Association should also participate in the protest. “We will continue protesting against Mir Shakil’s arrest, but other institutions like PFUJ should also join us,” he added.
Hamid Mir said that not only Mir Shakil is in jail, but Channel 24 has also been stopped. “I appreciate the press clubs of Karachi, Quetta, Lahore for returning the financial assistance cheques back to the government. You can’t buy us,” he asserted.
Former president PFUJ Afzal Butt said all in favour of press freedom always stood by it, even in General Ayub, Zia and Musharraf eras. Whenever the media was constrained, our overseas journalists became our voice and made it echo in the outside world. We say journalists being lynched during Zia-ul-Haq’s time and this time is no different, he added.
Senior journalist Saleem Bukhari said it was not the first step of the government towards stopping the media. He noted that the way the government used a 34-year-old case against Mir Shakil [to arrest him] was ridiculous. He added that the premier himself is accused of getting land from the Punjab government for the Shaukat Khanum Hospital. Even dictators could not take a stand against journalists, he said and asked “what is the position of this weak government?”
Former president of APNA Dr Naseem Shekhani said, “In the US, we learnt that there should be press freedom. “We have fought for this freedom in Pakistan and we have seen arrests of our friends. We have to make a plan,” he maintained.
Dr Professor Munawar Sabir said Mir Shakil’s arrest was an act of victimisation and suppression of the voice of media and the society.
Lahore Press Club President Arshad Ansari said the PTI government has always attempted to gag the media, as adding it has failed to fulfill its promises. “What they have done to the TV channels is unprecedented. They arrested Mir Shakil in a baseless case,” he said and asked if this is the manifesto of the ruling party.
UK Press Club President Shaukat Dar said July 5 is a very important day in Pakistan’s history. “This is a black day and Pakistan is still under its shadow. The shadow of the past era has not subsided,” he said and added that they had launched a campaign against the arrest in many cities of the UK, but then the lockdown happened.
Azeem M Mian, senior journalist from the USA said the voice against the arrest will echo at the international level, especially in the Parliament and human rights groups in the US. “We are with our Pakistani journalists’ community,” he added.
Bureau Chief Jang Group EU, Khalid Hameed Farouqi said the European Parliament had issued a detailed statement on the issue. And, at diplomatic level, Pakistan has pledged to uphold press freedom. “Even the GSP Plus [status] is dependent on this. The government should realise that the country’s diplomatic, economic and political interests require press freedom,” he added.
He further said that the Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have raised their voice against the violations and Mir Shakil’s detention. “What legacy does Imran Khan want to leave? Does he want to become a fascist like [US President Donald] Trump or [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi,” he asked and said they will go to every EU institution and tell them about the situation in Pakistan.
Senior journalist and Secretary General of Rawalpindi-Islamabad Union of Journalists Asif Ali Bhatti, who hosted the conference, said the entire media is being suppressed. Chaining Mir Shakil is tantamount to chaining the media, he said, adding the Jang Group has always been targeted for its neutral and objective reporting.
Iftikhar Sherazi (Dawn News Islamabad Bureau Chief), Dr Ijaz Ahmed (Chairman APPAC in the US), Rafiq Mughal (UK Press Club), Imran Saqib (President Press Club Brussels), Khalid Hameed Farouqi (EU), Khurram Kaleem (Director News City 42), Ammir Sajjad Syed (President RIUJ), Nawaz Raza (President PFUJ Dastoor), Shahadat Hussain (ex-president MUJ), Mohsin Zaheer (senior journalist USA), Anwar Iqbal (senior journalist US), Naveed Chaudhry (senior journalist Lahore), Imtiaz Faran (President Karachi Press Club), Hamza Salam (senior journalist UK), Wajahat Ali Khan (senior journalist UK), Mubeen Chaudhry (senior journalist UK) and many others participated in the conference.