Senators demand halt to intimidation of Jang Group

By our correspondent

ISLAMABAD: Opposition senators in the Upper House severely criticised the government on Tuesday for attacking the freedom of the press and demanded an immediate halt to state pressure, intimidation and coercion against the Jang Group of Newspapers.

Senator Saifur Rehman remained the target of criticism of opposition whose members alleged that the "biggest tax defaulter" had launched a war on the Jang Group of Newspapers "on the instructions of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif."

The debate on the issue started after an agreement between the treasury and the opposition benches. The opposition dropped its main agenda item -- alleged bypassing of the Senate -- and chose to discuss the "attack on the press." The government did not oppose the adjournment motion and Law Minister Khalid Anwar said the government was doing so in a spirit of accommodation.

The debate, however, remained inconclusive. Ten more speakers are yet to express their views on the matter. It will be wound up on Wednesday. The three treasury members who took part in the discussion supported their speeches with two arguments: that if somebody had evaded tax, he should face the action and that the Jang Group was not being singularly targeted as other newspapers had no complaints against Senator Saifur Rehman.

But Senator Mukhtar said in his speech that the treasury members had not gone through the case in detail which was why they were being irrelevant. He and PPP Senators Iqbal Haider and Raza Rabbani reminded the house that Senator Saif had admitted to asking the Jang Group to support the government which, they said, was similar to infamous press advice tactic of the martial law era to curb the press freedom.

Senator Iqbal Haider who initiated the debate said what the senator had done had no parallel in the history of the country. He said when the newspaper obtained relief from the courts, the government opened fresh cases against it to keep it under a vicious trap and use coercive means. "How many factories have you raided and how many accounts have been frozen of the tax defaulters," asked Haider as he addressed Senator Saif.

He added: "I would like to know how many tax evaders has the government arrested," Iqbal Haider said and alleged that the government was trying to subjugate the Jang Group. He said Senator Saif had declined to repudiate charges on oath at the Faisal Mosque which was clear evidence that he was at fault. Iqbal Haider said supporting the CA-15 was not mandatory on the press but Saifur Rehman pressurised the Jang Group to do so. "This is a serious and dangerous trend of fascism, and dictatorship," he said.

Senator Raza Rabbani said the government had been playing one institution against the other and "it thrives on clash among the institutions." He said the government had first attacked the president, then the judiciary, then the former chief of the army staff and now it was after the press. He said the Ehtesab Bureau chief had no right to issue directives to the press and read out in the house the Jang/News advertisement. He said the senator had clearly committed the contempt of judiciary. "I feel ashamed how he has ridiculed the judges when he talked about the 'level of judiciary'," Rabbani said.

Senator Shafqat Mahmood said the only fault of the Jang Group was that it informed the readers in Pakistan regarding what had appeared about the rulers in the foreign press.He said foreign newspapers had published stories about the loot and plunder of the rulers and talked of their property and foreign bank accounts. Shafqat Mahmood said if the allegations against the rulers were untrue, they could have moved the courts outside Pakistan against the foreign newspapers but instead they attacked the Jang Group.

According to Shafqat, what the government was doing was a part of a plan to punish anybody that obstructed or opposed dictatorship in the country. But he reminded that the Jang Group was a hard nut to crack and the rulers would not succeed in their designs. Major Mukhtar said that it was a sad story of coercion, intimidation and pressure and was tantamount to bullying.

He said Senator Saif's words bespoke of contempt against the judiciary and the Jang group was being punished for views which were reflective of the people and not necessarily its own. He said Jang was a neutral newspaper with largest circulation and to order it to bow into submission was deplorable. He said it was going to give a bad name to the country because here the freedom of the press was being curbed.

He criticised the senator, saying in reply to the Jang/News advertisement, Saif used indecent and repulsive language when he mentioned the grave of Mir Khalilur Rehman. Referring to the demands of the senator, Mukhtar said since Jang group was a private organisation, it had the right to employ or not employ anybody. "Who is Saifur Rehman to tell them whom to sack and whom to employ?" asked the Senator. But he said, "the man has no regrets unfortunately."

He asked the prime minister to keep in mind that he was not running the province of Punjab but the federation of Pakistan. Dr Ismail Buledi of the JUI said the prime minister should first tell how much tax he had paid. He said if allegations against the Jang Group were true, still the method used by the senator was not correct. "He should not forget that he is also one of the plunderers and he too should face accountability because he is not an angel."

Raja Aurangzeb of the PML said that nobody was above the law and if the Jang Group had any complaints, it should move the courts. He said no other newspaper had raised voice against the government, although they too published anti-government stories. Rafiq Rijwana of the ruling party said if the Jang Group had evaded taxes, it should face legal proceedings. While Javed Abbasi said he supported the genuine press. Barrister Masud Kasur of the PPP said the government wanted to stifle the free voice of the press and alleged that the rulers had been politically brought up in the lap of dictators, so they could not do anything else.

The News International Pakistan