Govt under fire in NA over Jang issue

By Mariana Baabar

ISLAMABAD: The government finally managed to muster up some courage in the National Assembly to face the charges of continuous harassment, victimisation and what the opposition called was sheer "goondaism" of a fascist leader against the Jang Group by telling its Parliamentary Secretary for Information Hanif Ramay to explain its point of view.

Minister for Information Mushahid Hussain, though present in the lower house, appeared hesitant to face the wrath of the combined opposition and the independent members, specially when the journalists had staged a walkout. He chose to launch a personal attack on the owner of Jang Group, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman in the Senate, even though rules do not permit such debate against a person who is absent from the sitting and unable to defend himself at the time.

It was for the first time in the parliamentary history that the Independent Group walked out of the lower house when they were not allowed to speak in defence of freedom of the press. Later, Daniyal Aziz and Qaiser Sheikh, on behalf of the group, condemned the speaker in harsh language and said they stood with the Jang Group and for full freedom of the press. The treasury benches were completely isolated while finding a "face saver" for the government's antics.

However, on Thursday, once again the government sent clear signals that it was divided against bailing out Ehtesab chief Senator Saifur Rehman. It was quite clear the prime minister had been embarrassed tremendously by Saif as was apparent from Ramay's statement. "The Jang Group is free to move courts against Saif for his remarks made against the Jang Group. If he has in anyway broken rules to vote in Pakistan, then the Chief Election Commissioner should receive a petition against him. We have nothing against the Jang Group. Saif has given his personal views."

Only a day before, the interior minister had distanced himself from the strong-arm tactics of Saif. Ramay said the government was not opposed to the freedom of the media but was only insisting the Jang Group should pay its taxes. Every opposition member and those from the Independent Group were on their feet beseeching the Speaker they too wanted to speak in support of the Jang Group. But time permitted only a few from the opposition benches.

PPP's Aftab Shaaban Mirani tore into bits all the arguments Saif had been building up in defence of his not paying taxes because he had stayed abroad. "Returns of Saif show that he has not paid taxes for three years when he says he was out of the country. If he has stayed away for enough time not to pay wealth tax then how did he get permission to vote in Pakistan? According to the rules you have to be present for six months before you are eligible to vote. His vote is illegal and he should be immediately removed from the Senate. He has clearly stated he was not apologetic about giving directives to the Jang Group. How can you give directives to the press? He says he wished he had known about Jang's appeal in court as he would have seen to it that no judge or court in Pakistan ruled against the government. There is no denial about this statement. How can he think of controlling the judiciary?"

ANP's Asfandyar Wali made one of the harshest speeches, and said not a single minister was admitting that they had given orders to take on the Jang Group. "What is this Bala"of the Ehtesab Bureau which has been imposed upon us? What is this supra-constitutional body? Where should we go? Where will the people of the country go? The parliamentary secretary says this is not the policy of the government against Jang then whose policy is it? This government wants to control every aspect of the citizen even the rights they enjoy in the Constitution. These are fascist tendencies which deny legal rights. You already have the radio and TV, why deny space to the opposition in the press? You have to tolerate us. You cannot control the minds of the people," he warned.

The government heard in silence when PPP's Syed Naveed Qamar questioned Saif as to who had given him the right to ask for the removal of 16 journalists from the Jang Group. "He has not denied that. He has admitted trying to control the judiciary. This is sheer "goondaism". Any paper which has the courage to expose your scandals is taken to task. Jang has over 50 per cent of the country's readers. Under what law do you want to control the media?"

Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani (ZAB group) asked why the government had suddenly remembered cases against Jang after it had started to reveal its wrongdoings. "If you had these cases all the time then why were you silent? Why only Jang? What about the other newspapers? Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the others. After destroying every other institution like the judiciary, presidency, army and the parliament through the 14th Amendment, now it is the turn of the media. The people of Pakistan will not allow this. Tomorrow in opposition you will need these newspapers."

ANP's Wali Mohammad asked what punishment was to be given to Saif. "The parliamentary secretary has admitted it was because what Jang had published that Saif had reacted. Is this either correct or legal? What right does Saif have to punish the press?" he questioned.

MQM's Kunwar Khalid Yunus said it was deplorable that Mushahid Hussain who himself was a journalist at one time was taking on the media. "He should have been present in the house. Mir Khalil-ur-Rehman was a diligent worker who started working on a bicycle and took his paper to the heights it has reached today. Those who are supporting the government hope their circulation would rise because of the problems Jang is facing. If Jang stops publishing, then tomorrow it will be their turn," he warned.

Deputy Leader of the Opposition PPP's Khurshid Shah said the present action against Jang was reflective of the policies of the government which was hell bent on destroying every institution. "Can Pakistan under these policies exist or will it be a return to East Pakistan? Don't impose your personal whims on the whole country by destroying press freedom. Saif should be asked to return the money he looted." To a volley of questions Ramay said even previously when Khalil-ur-Rehman had been told by the government his tax had not been paid he quickly moved to do so. "Freedom of the press should not be interlinked swith customs duty and tax returns. We have respect for journalists and believe in press freedom. We have nothing against Jang. But stories against the national interest were printed and the prime minister had every right to show his concern. About what Saif has said about the judiciary, well these are only press clippings. Why has action not been taken against Nawa-i-Waqt and Pakistan? Press will be allowed to flourish but tax evasion will also be dealt with," he asserted.

The News International Pakistan