Towards a legal cell helping journalists defending cases in Pakistani courts


Interview with Muhammad Aftab Alam, Executive Director, IRADA, Pakistan.

UNESCO: Could you present yourself and introduce how you become committed to promoting media freedom?

Muhammad Aftab Alam: I am a lawyer and public policy researcher with interest and focus on issues like media freedom and journalists’ safety, internet governance and online freedom, transparency and right to information, media laws and regulations.

From the beginning of my professional career in 2001, I have had opportunities to work alongside renowned practitioners and champions of citizens’ rights and civil liberties including freedom of expression and right to information. Coincidently, in early days of my legal practice, country’s electronic media market was opened up for private sector. This liberalization of airwaves in 2002 and expansion of broadcast sector during a military regime resulted in new legal issues and challenges. However, a critical junction was the imposition of emergency on 3rd November 2007 with a blanket ban on private broadcast media and the arrestation of more than 300 hundred journalists. At that time, being part of Internews Network and having trainings at the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP) of Oxford University, I realized the significance of freedom of expression in general and media freedom in particular for highly need democracy in our country. All this contributed to shaping up my commitment towards promotion of media freedom in the country.

UNESCO: What is the mission of the Organization you are working for?

Muhammad Aftab Alam: The Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) – envisions a democratic, progressive and inclusive polity and society in Pakistan through a missionary roadmap that includes: strengthening democracy through inclusivity and pluralism; strengthening local empowerment through devolution of powers; strengthening governance through accountability and transparency; and strengthening justice through fundamental rights.

IRADA focuses on: promoting inclusivity and pluralisms through support for free speech, civil liberties, peace and rights of minorities and marginalized communities; promoting devolution of powers through support for empowerment of provinces and districts, policy development, provincial-level legislation and local governance; promoting accountability and transparency through support for right to information, free media, open internet, open government; and promoting fundamental rights through support for equality, access to justice and rule of law.

UNESCO: What will you do thanks to the grant by the Global Media Defence Fund?

Muhammad Aftab Alam: We aim to create and reinforce a protection mechanism for the beleaguered journalists through a Legal Cell that will help journalists in fighting their cases in the courts of law and combat high degree of impunity of crimes against them. We also intend to materialize a legal / statutory protection framework for journalists to invoke for their safety.

UNESCO: What will be the impact of this action?

Muhammad Aftab Alam: The overall objective of this project is to reduce high impunity of crimes against journalists in Pakistan through prosecution and litigation. This initiative will directly help at least 25 journalists to get justice through courts. Indirectly, the intervention of strategic litigation in the high courts and Supreme Court for establishment of a formal protection environment for journalists will benefit more than 20,000 working journalists.

UNESCO: Any suggestions/recommendations you would like to make to UNESCO as administrator of the Global Media Defence Fund and to its donors?

Muhammad Aftab Alam: Given the increasing impunity of crimes and growing number of criminal charges against journalists in Pakistan, there is a need to form, support and strengthen networks of professional bodies like bar councils, unions of journalists and human rights and civil society groups to work together to combat this situation. As an international agency, UNESCO and the UN, beside implementation of initiatives like this Fund, can also build pressure on duty-bearers to fulfill their commitments under several international instruments like International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus GSP+, the Universal Periodical Review, and the Agenda 2030 including, SDG 16.10 aiming to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms.