HRCP concerned at bids to curb freedom of the media

Lahore: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has expressed alarm at the aggravation in key human rights areas and absence of priority and resolve in dealing with the issues.

A statement issued at the conclusion of its council and annual general meetings said: “The General body and the Executive Council of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expresses serious concern that the human rights situation has not shown any improvements in the six months since we met in October last.”

It said that more reasons for alarm have surfaced as the government seemed directionless. “Clear policies are lacking. “There is an urgent need to defuse regional tensions and work towards building relations with neighbors. HRCP proposes the government extends the role of the Planning Commission to serve as a think tank for political-social issues facing the country so that clear policies and strategies are in place.”

HRCP said counter-terrorism policies must protect citizens rather than targeting them. “Legislative measures aimed at countering lawlessness and terrorism have raised concerns regarding due process rights for the accused. These concerns must be addressed and laws for tackling the challenges must not be arbitrary or in contravention of human rights,” it said.

HRCP regretted that its proposal to the Balochistan government to set a up a provincial human rights commission has not been heeded. It was proposed that an independent human rights commissioner be appointed in an honorary capacity in Quetta and human rights officers in each district. “Such a set-up could be followed in other provinces as well. It is regrettable that HRCP’s request to visit Totak, where a mass grave had been discovered, has not been granted.”

While the Balochistan government was congratulated on holding the local body elections last December, ahead of other provinces, those elected have not yet taken oath and the benefits of the system remained out of people’s reach. Other provinces have not yet held these crucial elections which devolve power to the grassroots level and facilitate the solving of people’s problems. However, HRCP welcomes the Balochistan government’s decision to provide compensation to all victims of terrorism, including civilians.

HRCP expressed alarm at efforts to curb freedom of the media through intimidation and threats of legal action. At the same time, it is deeply concerned at the ongoing war of words between large media groups, which it considers a setback to freedom of the media and its ability to criticise the military establishment.

“The media is also failing in its duty to encourage rational debate and to promote a culture of tolerance. The commission believes that it is time to make Pakistan Television (PTV) an autonomous institution.”

It condemned arbitrary detentions in Malakand under the Actions in Aid of Civil Power Ordinance. Reports of enforced disappearance and custodial deaths have also been received from Malakand, pointing to the abuse of state power.

HRCP once again condemned attacks on places of worship belonging to non-Muslims. There have been several attacks on Hindu temples in Larkana, Tharparkar and Hyderabad. At the same time, a 150-year-old temple in Karachi is facing damage from unplanned construction of underpasses and flyovers by a private developer. Religious minorities also continue to be persecuted through the blasphemy laws. It is time for the government and the parliament to show courage and begin a debate on reforming those laws.

Insecurity felt by non-Muslims is reflected in thousands leaving the country. Rise in religious intolerance is compelling many to convert to Islam. The Tharparker drought and its high death toll is one indication of poor governance in Sindh. Other matters of concern include rise in kidnappings for ransom in upper Sindh as well as extrajudicial killings of Sindhi nationalists who are picked up and their dead bodies later dumped.

HRCP said the terms of talks with the terrorists have not been shared with the people, increasing fears that concession for them can come at the cost of the citizens’ rights, particularly women and religious and sectarian minorities.

“The practice of enforced disappearance and dumping of dead bodies has spread to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. The impunity for the perpetrators that HRCP believe is behind this expansion must be ended and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance ratified.”

It said: “Life has become so difficult for many sections in Pakistan that more and more people are being forced to consider leaving the country amid safety and security concerns as well as lack of economic and livelihood opportunities. The impact of the high cost of living on people’s ability to access basic rights, including health, education and food, is not getting due attention. The economy should be revived to generate income for the poor to enable them to meet basic needs with dignity.”

HRCP strongly reiterated that the need to mainstream FATA remains as urgent as ever and neglect in this regard is having serious consequences for the entire country, not just for the residents of this long suffering region.

It said the risks for human rights defenders continue and they find it difficult to work in or report from an ever growing list of areas. Their protection and facilitation of their work must be prioritised.

HRCP said the attacks on polio vaccinators and a rise in incidence of cases are matters of grave concern and demand multi-pronged action which must include awareness drives and reclaiming writ of the state in regions where lawlessness prevents vaccination.”

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