ISLAMABAD - President Asif Ali Zardari Monday night at the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) Annual Awards, said that PPP and the present government recognise and respect the critical role of the media in promoting democracy as an independent media was a guarantor of human rights, freedoms and liberties.

The record of this government in upholding media freedoms and tolerance for dissent speaks for itself, the president said while addressing the 22nd APNS Award Ceremony at the Aiwan-e-Sadr. He appreciated the good work done by APNS to protect and promote the interests of the newspaper industry in Pakistan.

President Zardari congratulated the APNS Award winners, particularly the veteran journalists and the winners of Life Achievement Award and said that the Award was recognition of their achievements in different disciplines of journalism and newspaper industry. He applauded the services and contributions of winners of Life Achievement Award as they have spent a lifetime in the service of the profession and the country with distinction.

Commenting on government’s policy of reconciliation and tolerance, the president said “we have endured even a campaign of slander but we have as a matter of policy to let the people judge. Let them judge whether we have been just criticised or subjected to a campaign of slander… We have decided not to be provoked and will not be provoked in the future. We have not taken any action against anyone and will continue with the same (policy)”.

His spokesperson quoted the president as saying “our people are wise; let us not underestimate their wisdom. They can differentiate between freedom of expression and an organised campaign of slander and that the people respond in their own ways. They respond by placing their trust or withdrawing it”.

The president said that the undemocratic elements have “targeted us and that they have tried to belittle our achievements and discredit the party”. He said that at times they have been subjected to a campaign of character assassination and now the prime minister and his family members are the latest target of a smear campaign. “Yousuf Raza Gilani has become the target ever since he raised the slogan of Seraiki province and ever since he stood by me. Before that YRG was acceptable. But since he started supporting me and the Seraiki province he has become unacceptable.”

President Zardari said they have extended the hand of friendship to all political forces, the media and all stake holders as well and feel satisfied that this policy of the government has started paying dividends.

The president while recalling his meeting with the APNS last year and the demands raised therein, expressed pleasure that the Press Council of Pakistan has since been set up and its chairman has been appointed. He said that it was now for the Press Council to move forward and move fast in consultation with all stake holders, adding that “we look forward to the progress the Press Council will be making in the months and years ahead”.

Commenting on the 2nd demand of the APNS, the president expressed pleasure that the information ministry has taken the ownership of the Freedom of Information Act from the Cabinet Division and said that there was consensus to repeal the old Ordinance of 2002, and bring in a new Act of the Parliament.

He said that the information ministry has prepared a draft bill in consultation with all stakeholders, the media organisations, like APNS, CPNE, SAFMA, PFUJ and APNEC; NGOs and Human Rights organisations as well as the provincial government. The president said that they believe in providing genuine access to information for the sake of transparency and accountability and called upon the ministry to expedite finalisation of the bill and table it in the parliament at the earliest.

Commenting on PPP’s support to media freedoms in the country, the president said that Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto as prime minister started the process of liberalisation of the media in Pakistan, adding that before her, the newsprint quota was traditionally employed as a tool to force the media toe the line. However, he said that it was for the first time during Benazir Bhutto’s government that the system of newsprint quota was abolished. Benazir was also a pioneer of cable news in Pakistan and she was the loudest voice against the measures aimed at curbing media freedoms, he added.

Recounting achievements of the PPP, the president said that the party was proud of its record in giving the country a consensus constitution as for the first time in 25 years after independence, it was given by the PPP government. He said the successive dictatorships disfigured the constitution but it was again PPP that restored the democratic constitution.

Zaradri said that, besides consolidating democracy in the country, the present PPP-led coalition government, has also taken other far reaching measures including giving self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, resolving the issue of distribution of resources between the federation and the provinces through 7th NFC Award, restoring the 1973 constitution, reclaiming Swat and Malakand from the militants, fighting head on terrorists and extremists and  empowering the parliament in helping frame security and foreign policies.

Referring to the current energy issues, the president said that the government was cognizant of the problems that still need to be resolved. The energy crisis is the result of the circular debt that was left behind by the previous government, he said and added that during Benazir’s second government Pakistan had surplus electricity and Pakistan could even export power to India. He said that thoughtless reversal of her energy policy led to the present day power crisis as investors were threatened, chased and hounded.

President Zardari underlined the need to understand the problem in its proper context and expressed hope to overcome the problem soon. He urged for joint efforts to tackle the energy issues and said that there was no short cut to a long term solution of this crisis. He called upon all the political parties to develop consensus on economic policies, particularly policies in addressing the energy crisis.