Minister for Information and Broadcasting Senator Shibli Faraz on Wednesday said the overriding priority of the current government under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan was to ensure complete freedom of expression as provided in the provisions of 1973 Constitution. He was responding to the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors’ (CPNE) annual report on freedom of media in Pakistan, published in newspapers on February 1. The minister, in a letter to CPNE President Arif Nizami, said contrary to the assertions made in the report even casual reader of the newspapers and viewers of the talk shows would testify that the freedom of expression enjoyed in the country was comparable to that of any Western democracy. The safety, security and well-being of the media persons were closer to their hearts, he added. He said, “I must add here that the report does not provide any data or iota of evidence in support of the allegations. However, the Ministry would continue to work with the journalistic bodies, including APNS (All Pakistan Newspapers Society), CPNE, PBA (Pakistan Broadcasters Association) and PFUJ (Pakistan Federal union of Journalists) to ensure the steps which the Ministry can take to ameliorate the sufferings of the media industry.” He assured the CPNE that the government would take all necessary steps to ensure freedom of press in the country, and to ensure the safety and security of the working journalists. The minister made parawise comments on the issues raised in the CPNE report to set the record straight. According to the CPNE report, at least 10 Pakistani journalists were murdered and several others threatened, kidnapped, tortured and arrested last year. The minister replied that the CPNE report did not provide any details of the journalists, who were either murdered or targeted, and also whether the journalists were targeted by the law and order agencies or otherwise. “Since law and order is a provincial matter, we will seek details from the concerned stakeholders, and will ensure that justice is delivered to the bereaved families. No crime against journalists will go unpunished.” The report mentioned that at least nine journalists died of COVID-19, to which the minister replied that the government was getting details of all the journalists who died due to the pandemic, and the ministry would provide financial assistance to their families. The CPNE report also claimed that attempts to silence the press continued throughout the year. On this, the minister commented that as per constitutional provisions, there was complete freedom of press in the country, and everybody was free to express his or her views. Any attempts by the government to silence the press must be shared with the ministry. The report stated that there was verbal and physical harassment by senior officials and representatives of the government and registration of fake cases against journalists and their arrests, including that of Jang’s Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakilur Rehman. Shibli Faraz replied that the case against Mir Shakil ur-Rehman was registered by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which was an independent institution and the Ministry had no role in its proceedings. However, courts were free to provide relief as per legal provisions. The CPNE report mentioned that the unannounced and hidden censorship got further intensified when journalists were harassed and threatened for expressing their opinion online or on social media websites. The minister responded that the allegation had no grounds. “Media in Pakistan is enjoying complete freedom, which is evident from the fact that a large number of print and electronic media outlets are performing their role uninterrupted in the country. Not a single instance has been mentioned in the report to prove the allegations.” According to the report, the government officials seized books written by senior journalists Muhammad Hanif and Suhail Warraich in Karachi and Lahore. On July 27, Rangers officials violated the sanctity of the Karachi Press Club and conducted a raid. The minister responded that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had no link with the case. Relevant institutions were independent and working within their own ambit. The report said the Federal Information Ministry declared over 6,000 publications as “dummy newspapers” and suspended their registration. On June 6, all unregistered publications, printing presses and news organizations were closed down on the orders of the press registrar. The minister in response said the figure of 6000 was preposterous. Total number of publications enlisted with PID (Press Information Department) was 1642. If there were some publications which were suspended, those must have discontinued their publication long ago or had serious lacunas in their official records, which they failed to rectify despite repeated reminders by the relevant departments. “I will personally enquire about it, and would also request the CPNE to share data,” he added. The CPNE mentioned in its report that services of thousands of journalists and media workers were terminated and the majority was facing unprecedented pay cuts and delays in the release of their salaries. Services of over 1,000 employees of Radio Pakistan were terminated without any prior notice. The minister said as far as private media outlets were concerned, the owners/employers were the relevant persons to ask the question. “As far as MOIB is concerned we have ensured establishment of 8th Wage Board in order to safeguard interests of journalists all over the country. As far as contractual employees of PBC (Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation) are concerned, we are looking into the issue on case to case basis. I assure you that no one will be removed if the required criteria are fulfilled.” The report further stated that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) on several occasions tried to intimidate and control the media. To this the minister replied that PEMRA was an independent electronic media regulatory authority, aimed at safeguarding Pakistan’s socio-cultural norms, and to promote development of electronic media in the country. If any media outlet had any grievance against its action, the courts were available to provide relief.