Let’s have NRO debate in the open, say panel members
Even seven out of nine PPP members want media presence
By Muhammad Ahmad Noorani
ISLAMABAD: The government was in for a rude shock on the NRO issue when on Tuesday 15 out of the 17-member National Assembly standing committee on law and justice engaged with the controversial piece of legislation almost scuttled a government move, which want the next committee meeting on October 26 to be held in-camera to avoid any embarrassing coverage of the issue. Unbelievable as it may seem, but this group, demanding media glasnost, also includes seven members out of the total nine-member PPP squad in the committee.
In background interviews with The News, the 15 agitating committee members said they did not see any justification for barring the media from covering the proceedings and wanted the proceedings to be open for public consumption.
The NRO issue is sure to generate even greater heat and running passions than the ruckus witnessed when the National Assembly committee on education, headed by PML-N MNA Abid Sher Ali, wanted an open session on the FarahHameed Dogar case but National Assembly Speaker Dr Fehmida Mirza had ruled that if the majority of the members wanted a closed session then she could not force the minority desire to prevail. As far the numbers game was concerned, however, the situation stands completely reversed in this case with the majority wanting an open-to-media session but, it was learnt, Committee Chairperson Begum Nasim Akhtar Chaudhry will adhere to the party order and shall order holding of the session in-camera.
Ironically, only a couple of days earlier while talking to The News, Chairperson Begum Nasim had said she had no problem with the media coverage of the NRO session. “OK, I properly invite you and other media personnel to attend this meeting,” Begum Nasim had extended the invitation.
According to informed insiders, the government has no intentions of relenting on the no-media-coverage-of-NRO and already, the National Assembly secretariat, too, has announced that the October 26 committee meeting will be a closed session. How Chairperson Nasim reacts to such decisions being taken on her behalf remains to be seen.
In another blatant move, the government by nominating nine PPP members to this committee has transgressed the basic formula of giving representation to all political parties according to their strength in the National Assembly. According to laid down norms and formula, a maximum of only six PPP MNAs could be included in the committee and not nine. But in a rather sardonic irony, even seven out of these nine loyalists want the session to be open to the media.
According to proportionate representation in the house (National Assembly has total 342 members where PPP has 122, PML-N has 91 and PML-Q has 56) the PPP could have maximum six members, PML-N could have four members and PML-Q could have three members. But in the present composition, PPP has nine, PML-N has four, PML-Q has three and MQM has one member. However, other parties like ANP, JUI-F, independents and Fata do not have any representation and the PPP government has inducted its own members to get a majority to tackle the NRO issue.
While this issue has to be sorted out, PPP MNAs and members of this committee Tariq Shabbir, Chaudhry Abdul Ghafoor, Syed Zafar Ali Shah and Shakeela Khanam Rashid told The News they have no objection, whatsoever, to the presence of the media in the next NRO meeting of the committee. Rather, they termed media’s presence necessary for the transparent conduct of proceedings.
PPP’s Ejaz Virk, who could not be contacted on Wednesday, had earlier told this scribe that he always supported the media presence in such meetings. PPP’s Justice (retd) Fakharunisa Khokhar told The News she would not comment on the subject as this was the prerogative of the chairperson of the committee. Same comment was made by MQM’s SA Iqbal Qadri who is also member of this committee.
In yet another crafty move, the government had removed a vocal PPP MNA, Shakeela Khanum Rashid and replaced her with the ever calm minister Naveed Qamar, who is unlikely to cerate any unpleasant surprises for his political bosses. But MNA Shakeela Khanum has refused to take her ouster and has taken a stance that she will never leave the committee and has conveyed this to higher PPP circles. While talking to The News on Tuesday, Shakeela Khanum disclosed that the higher party echelons had intimated her that notification of her removal from the committee will be cancelled and that a new notification affecting her restoration will soon be issued.
Talking to The News a few days back, Shakeela had expressed the opinion that the cases closed through the agencies working under the present government will be a better option rather than choosing the option of NRO. She had stated that if the NRO was presented before the committee she would work for a fair and non-discriminatory legislation and will work independently without accepting any pressure.
Senior PPP leader from Sindh and member of the committee Syed Zafar Ali Shah went to the extent of saying that no one could stop the media from covering the meeting of the standing committee. “This is the issue of basic constitutional rights and if the media are not allowed to cover this meeting this could be challenged in the Supreme Court,” Zafar added.
The role of the speaker of the National Assembly has now become crucial once again as she may be expected to rule on this issue, a la Farah Hameed Dogar case, only in this instance the majority wants to vote for the media, and not against its presence. During a meeting with about 15 journalists, Speaker Fehmida Mirza had argued that only if a majority of members of the committee were against the media presence during the meeting and the chairman was willing to allow the media how could she support a minority view. Let’s see what happens now.
The PML-N, which has four members in the committee, vows to foil any attempt to stop the media coverage of the said meeting. PML-N’s Justice (retd) Iftikhar Ahmad Cheema, Zahid Hamid, Saira Afzal Tarar and Anusha Rehman Khan told The News they would welcome the media in the NRO meeting of their committee.
PML-Q’s Amir Muqam, Riaz Ahmad Fatyana and Raza Hayat Hiraj said in categorical terms they would support media’s presence during the NRO meeting of the committee and would oppose it tooth and nail.
Anusha Rehman Khan, while talking to The News, noted all the political parties’ representation in standing committees should ideally be in proportion to their numbers in the National Assembly and the Senate. “If only one party is disproportionately represented in a standing committee it will amount to negating the principles of democracy and natural justice,” Anusha added.
On the other hand, spokesman for the National Assembly, Tariq Khan, while talking to The News, said according to existing situation media was not allowed to cover any meeting of a standing committee. “However, in accordance with the rules if chairman/chairperson of a committee allows media to cover any specific meeting he/she could issue orders in this regard,” Tariq said.
He added if chairman/chairperson allowed media coverage the National Assembly secretariat would not interfere in it. Minister of State for Law and Justice Muhammad Afzal Sindhu told The News he was unaware of the situation regarding stopping of the media coverage as he was not a member of the committee.
He hesitated to give his personal view on the media coverage, saying he was nobody to comment on this. Answering a question, the minister said he didn’t consider the NRO as an unconstitutional and discriminatory legislation and if both houses of parliament approved the NRO, it will become constitutional. Afzal Sindhu, however, said even if parliament approved the NRO as a law, the Supreme Court could set it aside as it has the constitutional powers to do so.