Journalists, activists decry ‘draconian’ Punjab defamation law aimed at regulating social media

A Pakistani journalist wearing a protective facemask uses his mobile phone outside the Aga Khan University Hospital where a patient of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has been admitted in Karachi on February 26, 2020. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 May 2024
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Journalists, activists decry ‘draconian’ Punjab defamation law aimed at regulating social media

  • Punjab passed law on Monday, while federal government has constituted a body to propose similar amendments to existing laws
  • Journalists and digital rights activists have said the legislations are part of a “greater design” to curb dissent on social media

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani journalists and digital rights activists on Tuesday decried a “draconian” legislation aimed at regulating social media content in the country’s most populous Punjab province, calling it an attempt to “stifle the press” and demanding a thorough consultation with civil society to protect fundamental rights.
Amid opposition protests, the Punjab Assembly on Monday passed the Defamation Bill, 2024, which proposes a special tribunal to try those involved in drafting, publishing and/or airing “fake news.” The tribunal shall decide a case within six months and may impose a fine of up to Rs3 million ($10,776).
The development came as the federal government constituted a committee to discuss establishment of a Digital Rights Protection Authority by amending existing laws to promote “responsible” use of the Internet, which activists fear would be another attempt to regulate social media content and stifle the press.
Zohra Yusuf, a former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said the Punjab government was establishing a parallel judicial system through the defamation law to prosecute people, adding that it would be a violation of the fundamental rights of people.
“The federal and Punjab government are trying to pass the legislations to regulate content on the social media, stifle press freedom and restrict the dissenting voices,” she told Arab News.
“A slew of defamation laws and regulations already exist on violation of privacy, propaganda against the state institutions like army or judiciary. Therefore, there is no need to enact new laws.”
Punjab Information Minister Azma Bukhari and Federal Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar did not respond to Arab News’ request for a comment.
Successive governments in Pakistan have enacted different laws and introduced amendments in the existing laws to enhance their control over the social media content and discourage the dissent by filing cases against journalists and activists for violating the laws.
Usama Khilji, a digital rights activist, said the authorities had controlled the mainstream media, but social media was becoming a “problematic platform for them being an unrestricted media.”
“The government wants to intimidate people through the legislation that if you criticize them, you’ll be fined or sent to jail,” Khilji told Arab News, adding the legislation would have a “chilling effect” on the constitutional rights like the freedoms of expression and press.
In the past, he said, courts had intervened after such legislations were made by parliament and struck them down for being in violation of the constitution. “The whole world is decriminalizing defamation laws, but we are enacting new laws to crack down on the democratic rights,” he said.
Separately, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) on Tuesday staged nationwide protests against the Punjab defamation law, urging authorities to refrain from implementing the legislation that was bound to curtail press freedom and control social media content.
“We want to cooperate with the government in promotion of responsible use of the Internet, but we cannot allow them to enact censorship laws,” PFUJ President Afzal Butt told Arab News.
“The federal government has promised to engage in meaningful consultation with journalist bodies on the proposed digital rights protection authority, but this has yet to begin.”
He said the proposed legislations were “part of a greater design” to curb dissent on social media.
Farieha Aziz, a digital rights activist, said the federal government’s committee had not shared any draft law with relevant stakeholders for discussion and it would be a disaster if they passed the law by bulldozing public opinion.
“The government is obviously making Pakistan a pariah state through these legislations as they would end up withdrawing digital rights and facilities to entrepreneurs and start-ups, besides intimidating journalists and social media activists,” she told Arab News.


Religion minister thanks Saudi counterpart for facilitation of Pakistani Hajj pilgrims

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Religion minister thanks Saudi counterpart for facilitation of Pakistani Hajj pilgrims

  • The statement came as Pakistan’s Hajj Mission in Saudi Arabia started moving pilgrims to Mina late Thursday
  • Pilgrims gather in Mina for the first day of Hajj, where they spend time preparing before heading to Arafat

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Religion Minister Chaudhry Salik Hussain on Thursday met Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Tawfiq bin Fawzan Al-Rabiah and thanked him for his “special attention” toward facilitation of Pakistani pilgrims during the Hajj pilgrimage, the Pakistani religious affairs ministry said.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and requires every adult Muslim to undertake the journey to the holy Islamic sites in Makkah at least once in their lifetime if they are financially and physically able.
Pakistan has a Hajj quota of 179,210 pilgrims this year, of which around 70,000 people are performing the pilgrimage under the government scheme, while the rest have used private tour operators.
During the meeting with the Saudi Hajj and Umrah minister, Hussain lauded the Saudi government for introducing innovation and new facilities in Hajj arrangements every year.
“We [only] desire best facilities for government and private pilgrims from Saudi authorities,” Hussain was quoted as saying by the Pakistani religion ministry.
“I am happy with the special attention of the Saudi Hajj minister for the convenience of Pakistani pilgrims.”
The Saudi minister said the Pakistan Hajj Mission will be provided all-possible support in Mina and Arafat, according to the Pakistani religion ministry.
He said authorities were encouraging private companies to ensure better facilities at these places.
Pakistan’s Hajj Mission in Saudi Arabia started moving pilgrims to Mina late Thursday.
Hajj pilgrims gather in Mina for the first day of Hajj, where they spend time preparing spiritually before heading to the plain of Arafat.
The Day of Arafat is considered the most significant day of Hajj where pilgrims engage in deep prayer and reflection, seeking forgiveness and blessings.
Following this, they proceed to Muzdalifah at night to collect pebbles, then move to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil at Jamarat, culminating with the celebration of Eid Al-Adha through the ritual of animal sacrifice.
Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Secretary Zulfiqar Haider, who was part of the meeting, said the two sides would have a “one-window” contact for the next year’s Hajj.


Pakistan to skip Ukraine peace summit due to ‘host of factors’ — Foreign Office

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Pakistan to skip Ukraine peace summit due to ‘host of factors’ — Foreign Office

  • The summit being held in Lucerne on June 15-16 aims to gather support for President Zelensky’s peace proposals
  • Islamabad’s decision to skip the conference is seen as a diplomatic move to maintain neutrality on the matter

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will not be participating in a Ukraine peace summit being hosted by Switzerland due to a “host of factors,” the Pakistani Foreign Office said on Thursday.
The summit, being held in the alpine resort of Lucerne on Saturday and Sunday, aims to gather support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace proposals, including the full withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
While around 90 states and organizations have registered to take part in the summit, several other countries, including China, have shown unwillingness to join the peace conference in the absence of Moscow, which was not invited.
Islamabad’s decision to skip the conference is being viewed by many as a diplomatic move to maintain neutrality on Russia’s war on Ukraine, especially since longtime ally China and Moscow are also not attending it.
“Pakistan received an invitation from Switzerland for the Conference, which is being held from 15th to 16th of June,” Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said at a weekly briefing on Thursday.
“However, due to a host of factors, including scheduling challenges, Pakistan is not participating in this conference.”
Pakistan has tried to stay neutral since Russia launched its war on Ukraine in Feb 2022, though Islamabad has raised concern and urged the world powers to mediate the crisis.
Pakistan has had good relations with Ukraine and has purchased weapons systems from Kyiv in the past. However, the war on Ukraine came amid Islamabad’s efforts to strengthen ties with Russia. Moscow has also provided discounted crude oil to energy-deficient Pakistan in recent years.
Baloch said Pakistan supported universal and consistent application of UN Charter principles, including non-use or threat of use of force, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, pacific settlement of disputes, and equal security for all states.
“We reiterate our call for immediate cessation of hostilities and stress the need for diplomacy and dialogue for an early negotiated end to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia,” she added.


Game changer: extreme heat stifles women’s sports in Pakistan

Updated 14 June 2024
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Game changer: extreme heat stifles women’s sports in Pakistan

  • Sport has been unaffordable luxury for girls from low-income households in Pakistan
  • It costs money to get to the few sports clubs available and even eating well is costly

KARACHI: Pakistani student Aqsa Shabbir is hot, tired and frustrated. A keen field hockey player, she can no longer train during the day because of a brutal heatwave, she can’t sleep at night and she fears she will not play well in a tournament at the end of June.
The 17-year-old, who lives in Jacobabad in the southern Sindh province, already had to overcome many obstacles — like many girls who live in Pakistan’s smaller cities where exercising in public is frowned upon — and the heatwave is making things harder.
Two years ago, Jacobabad was named the hottest city on earth after temperatures reached 51 degrees Celsius (124 Fahrenheit). This year, as a heatwave seared southeast Asia, temperatures shot up to 52 degrees Celsius (126 Fahrenheit) in May.
“We cannot keep waiting for the weather to get better — it won’t,” Shabbir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Jacobabad.
Rising temperatures are one more barrier for women and girls who want to stay active in a country where there are few training spaces available to them, apart from private sports clubs reserved for the wealthy.
A 2022 study found that the main obstacles to participating in sport in the Muslim-majority country are “religious and cultural limitations, a lack of permission from parents, and a lack of sports facilities and equipment.”
Now add extreme heat, linked to climate change, to the list.
Shabbir is a member of the Star Women’s Sports Academy in Jacobabad, the only women’s sports club in the city of nearly 300,000 people. The girls have started training later in the day in a bid to beat the heat but parents are unhappy with their daughters returning home late on their own.
And there is little rest at night either. Shabbir says the one air conditioner her family has invested in provides “little comfort” because of frequent power cuts. The long days and nights are affecting her performance. “I am not playing my best,” she said.
Haseena Soomro, who plays hockey at the same club, is equally frustrated.
“Of course the heat impacts our game,” the 19-year-old said. “The heat makes you sluggish, and this game is defined by speed.”
‘LONG AND UNBEARABLE’ SUMMER
Sport has long been an often unaffordable luxury for girls from low-income households in Pakistan. It costs money to get to the few sports clubs available and even eating well is costly.
Some sports clubs try to help out with expenses but Erum Baloch, who founded the club in Jacobabad where Shabbir and Soomro play, says that can also be difficult.
And now she is also grappling with the challenge of training her team on outdoor pitches during what she calls the “long and unbearable” summers.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the women wear long clothing when training. Even though Baloch’s club is in a women’s government college, the girls she coaches are uncomfortable swapping shalwar kameez for jogging pants, never mind cooler shorts.
“Families don’t like them wearing pants … shorts is too far-fetched a concept,” said Baloch. “Until society is ready, we need to concentrate on (making) sports for women acceptable instead of letting a dress come in our way.”
Farwa Batool, from Khairpur city in Sindh, wears long sleeves beneath her T-shirt to cover her arms and also wears a hijab when she plays field hockey.
“You cannot imagine the heat we bear,” she said, adding that she envies the men who can wear just shorts and T-shirts. She gets up at 5.45 am to train at the mixed gender club, hoping no men will be around.
“If we could have women-only grounds, or women timings are introduced with men strictly not allowed, we too can be free of yards of cumbersome clothing.”
In Jacobabad, Baloch is hoping to get financing from the government or a sponsor to pay for an indoor facility with air conditioning.
UNSUSTAINABLE EXPENSES
Zamzam Allahbuksh said she pays out of pocket to top up water and ice supplies at the women’s sports club she runs in Mirpurkhas, 230 km (143 miles) east of Pakistan’s largest city Karachi.
“I don’t want them catching a heatstroke,” she said.
To manage costs, she has introduced games like football and volleyball because she does not have enough equipment for everyone to play cricket or field hockey.
“At least with one football or one volleyball, quite a few girls can play a sport,” she said.
Baloch, too, arranges for drinking water every day for her 43 field hockey players along with oral rehydration solutions but this is not sustainable.
“I don’t know how long I can carry on doing this,” she said. “We cannot train girls on an ad hoc basis — there needs to be a continuous and full government support for them, if they want to play their best.”
As heat threatens the viability of the few facilities available to women and girls, Baloch said she hopes they don’t lose out on the opportunities sports can provide.
Some of the athletes Baloch has coached went on to attend university on sports scholarships.
Bushra Arif, a former field hockey player, is keenly aware of what sport offers girls in her country.
“Sports teach lifelong values like endurance, teamwork, confidence, overcoming challenges,” said Arif, now the director of physical education at Khursheed Begum Girls Degree College in Hyderabad in Sindh.
Despite all the challenges, Shabbir is trying to look on the bright side ahead of her important tournament in the neighboring Sukkur district.
“Who knows, we may outdo other teams from other cities with relatively lower temperatures, being more acclimatized to this extreme heat.”


Pakistan’s top IT body says government signed ‘death warrant’ of industry with budget 2024-25

Updated 14 June 2024
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Pakistan’s top IT body says government signed ‘death warrant’ of industry with budget 2024-25

  • Pakistan’s IT sector continued growth momentum in April marking another all-time high of $310 million inflows
  • Chairman of P@SHA says IT industry was already facing a dearth of skilled and highly-skilled workforce

KARACHI: Officials of the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) on Thursday expressed “profound apprehensions” about Pakistan’s national budget announced a day earlier, saying the IT Industry’s proposals had been “completely overlooked” and demanding amendments to the finance bill.
Pakistan’s IT sector continued its growth momentum in April this year, marking another all-time high record of $310 million in inflows. Central bank data shows the country achieved 62 percent year-on-year growth in the sector. During the 10 months of the current fiscal year (10MFY24), IT exports clocked in at $2.59 billion, up by 21 percent annual basis as compared to $2.14 billion recorded in 10MFY23.
Pakistani IT exports are expected to rise to above $3.5 billion after the caretaker government allowed a retention limit from 35 percent to 50 percent in the Exporters’ Specialized Foreign Currency Accounts.
Against this background, Ali Ihsan, senior vice chairman of P@SHA, said the government had signed the “death warrant” of the IT industry with the new budget.
“The government should have been aware that the last savior of Pakistan’s economy is the IT industry,” Ihsan said, “be it exports, current account management, employment generation or foreign direct investment.”
Muhammad Zohaib Khan, the chairman of P@SHA, said the IT industry was already facing a dearth of skilled and highly-skilled workforce:
“The government should have given a special package to the human resource pool to enable IT companies to continue with the momentum of double-digit growth in IT exports.”
He said higher income taxes on the salaried class included in the budget would “further fuel the brain drain of the skilled workforce from the IT industry of Pakistan,” adding that an allocation of Rs79 billion ($282.8 million) was primarily for the government’s own projects and IT parks while the industry as a whole and IT companies had been neglected.
“The situation was already alarming vis-à-vis taxes and human resource availability and P@SHA has, time and again, duly presented the facts and relevant proposals to the government,” Khan added.
On taxation measures, the P@SHA chief emphasized that the burden on IT companies was further compounded by the failure to address the challenges posed by the remote worker tax regime.
“Ironically, instead of removing the anomalies in current tax laws, additional taxes have been levied on imports of equipment and GST on hardware has been counterproductively enhanced from 5 percent to 10 percent,” Khan said.
He said the budget “directly” contradicted the Ministry of IT and Telecom’s claims of supporting the industry for investments and exports, demanding “necessary amendments” in the finance bill to ensure that Pakistan’s IT sector continued on its “spectacular growth trajectory.”


Political talks by Pakistan’s Imran Khan-led opposition shouldn’t be perceived as ‘anti-army’ — aide

Updated 13 June 2024
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Political talks by Pakistan’s Imran Khan-led opposition shouldn’t be perceived as ‘anti-army’ — aide

  • Jailed ex-PM Khan had vowed not to hold talks with his political rivals or army
  • Aides say Khan has now okayed talks with political rivals on way forward

ISLAMABAD: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s confidant Mehmood Khan Achakzai said on Thursday political talks approved by the ex-premier with the coalition government should not be perceived as “anti-army.”

Khan, who is jailed in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail since August after being convicted on corruption and other charges, had vowed not to hold talks with his political rivals and rejected the possibility of any “deal” with the incumbent government or the military, a major player in Pakistan’s tumultuous politics.

However, earlier this week, local media reported Khan had accepted a Supreme Court judge’s advice to engage in a dialogue with his rival political parties, especially the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), which heads the coalition government in the center, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), a main coalition partner. 

Khan was ousted as Pakistan’s prime minister in April 2022 via a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The former premier alleged the vote was orchestrated by Washington in cahoots with his political rivals, whom he accused of colluding with then Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, now retired, to remove him from power. All the accused deny the charge.

“The political talks should never, never be perceived as anti-army,” Achakzai said on Thursday during an interview with a local Pakistani media outlet, accepting that Khan had now given the go-ahead for talks.

Mahmood Khan Achakzai, chairman of the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami party, arrives at the Parliament House in Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 3, 2024. (AFP/File)

The sole purpose of the talks led by him would be to “let bygones be bygones” and strive for a solution together with the entire political elite, Achakzai said, adding that the solution would not be perfect but would “at least move toward perfection.”

When asked if the PML-N and PPP chiefs, PM Shehbaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari respectively, were willing to join political talks, Achakzai said: 

“We are striving for supremacy of the Constitution. If they don’t want to come, don’t, but there will come a time when they won’t be able to leave their houses.”

Political tensions in Pakistan came to a head last year on May 9 when allegedly angry supporters of Khan attacked military and government installations in many parts of the country. The attacks were in response to Khan’s brief arrest from the Islamabad High Court earlier the same day. 

Subsequently, the government launched a crackdown on Khan’s Pakistane Thereek-e-Insaf party, rounding up hundreds of its leaders and supporters across the country. The party has distanced itself from the attacks, rejecting the government’s allegations that it instigated them. Some prominent leaders of Khan’s party remain incarcerated.