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2018: A year of media suppression and rights abuses in Pakistan | Pakistan

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“Sneaky”, “sinister” and “Orwellian” are just some of the words Pakistani journalists and human rights defenders used to describe the censorship and growing clampdown on dissent, mainstream and social media in their country over the past year.

Although previous Pakistani governments also put pressure on civil society and the media, this year, many Pakistanis working in these fields I talked to felt that direct and indirect repression has increased significantly.

Attacks on the media 

As we were wrapping up 2018, there were a number of incidents that solidified the perception that the situation in the country has really gotten worse.

In early December, the Pakistani authorities blocked the website of Voice of America’s Pashto language radio service.

Then on December 8, a police case was filed against dozens of people in the aftermath of a rally organised by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement – PTM), which campaigns for Pashtun rights. Among them were two journalists Sailaab Mehsud, affiliated with Dawn newspaper and Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Mashaal Radio, and Zafar Wazir of the local channel Khyber TV, who had been covering the rally.

On December 14, Pakistan’s electronic media regulatory authority (PEMRA) issued an advisory note calling on media outlets not to report excessively on topics such as violence, kidnapping, sexual abuse, terrorism and natural disasters. 

This document came after a similar one was issued in advance of the July parliamentary elections, which called on the media not to air “derogatory and malicious content” against the judiciary and the army. These regulatory letters purportedly aim to build a “positive image” of the country and address the “negative perception” of Pakistan globally, but many see them as a form of pressure on the media.

Then on December 15, Jang Group, the country’s leading media house, fired hundreds of staffers en masse, closing down a number of its outlets.

Over the past year, a number of media organisations have had to downsize or close down due to declining advertising revenue or other financial constraints. Journalists I have talked to believe that this is a tactic to control the media and impose more “friendly” reporting on the authorities. 

They also say that printing presses have been pressured to stop from publishing certain newspapers, cable operators have been asked to cease broadcasting certain channels and big businesses have been advised against putting up advertisements with certain media outlets.

The media have also been pressured to fire certain employees who have been too critical of the Pakistani establishment. This year, leading prime-time news show hosts Talat Hussain, Murtaza Solangi, Mateeullah Jan, and Nusrat Javed either quit or lost their jobs. What they have in common is that they all questioned the transparency of the July elections and openly criticised the jailing of the former PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Mariam Nawaz.  

Journalists I talked to also shared their frustration with the increasing pressure and censorship in Pakistani newsrooms.

“It was ridiculous how we had to keep beeping off Nawaz Sharif when he would appear in court and during the election coverage. Election day was one of the worst days in my career as a producer in the newsroom, and I have seen the Musharraf era. We were not allowed to counter the official narrative of the authorities,” a senior producer of a news bulletin of a prominent cable news network told me.  

An editor of an English-language daily complained that a “screening process” was set up in his newsroom under the explicit directions of the publisher which resulted in everyday interference and forced removal of editorials and op-eds.

Pressure on civil society

In addition to an intensifying clampdown on the media and the resulting self-censorship, the authorities are now pushing hard to further suppress the civic space and impose the official narrative on the human rights situation in the country after the July election.

In 2018, the authorities escalated pressure on human rights defenders and activists peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. They faced arrests, disappearances, accusations of treason, and violent threats from hardliner groups. The government has also stepped up filing complaints with social media companies against its online critics.

Recently, Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry admitted that the authorities want to regulate social media. Over the past several months, a number of human rights defenders and activists have received emails from Twitter that their tweets violate the country’s law; some accounts have even been suspended.

There have also been a number of human rights defenders, journalists and members of the legal profession who have either had to go into hiding or move to another country. Journalist Taha Siddiqui, for example, had to leave with his immediate family after narrowly escaping an abduction attempt.

The current government also continued the campaign the previous one started against non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As a result, this year some 18 international NGOs were forced to discontinue operations in the country, including Action Aid and Plan International. 

Another prominent target of the Pakistani authorities’ assault on civil society this year was the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

Many of its members, including two MPs, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, are facing police cases for taking part in rallies and corner meetings of the PTM.

In July, Hayat Preghal, a Pashtun human rights defender, was detained for a few days. He later faced charges of “anti-state” online expression via social media for his posts in support of PTM.

Preghal, who worked as a pharmacist in the United Arab Emirates, was in Pakistan on leave. Following the court hearing, his name was put on a no-fly list and as a result, Preghal, who is the primary breadwinner of his family, lost his job. He is yet another victim of what appears to be a campaign of targeted economic pressure against political dissidents and human rights activists. 

Over the summer, Wrranga Lunri, a Pashtun women’s rights advocate and supporter of PTM, also faced an intimidation campaign and had to relocate from her hometown in Balochistan. She was targeted for being a woman and an organiser, speaking out in public about her cause.

These are just a few of many examples of people who have fallen victim to the increasing intolerance for freedom of speech and human rights activism in Pakistan.

It is clear that this year the Pakistani authorities not only failed to abide by their constitutional and international commitments to ensure respect for rights and freedoms, but they actually actively engaged in campaigns of intimidation and censorship.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that 2019 would be any different in this regard.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Canadian report reveals spike in food-related litter during pandemic

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TORONTO — Restaurants’ inability to offer their usual dine-in service during much of 2020 may explain why an unusually high amount of food-related litter was found across the country, a new report says.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC) is an annual program in which volunteers are encouraged to clean up green spaces and other natural areas.

Last year, single-use food and beverage containers made up 26.6 per cent of waste collected through the program – nearly twice as high a percentage as in 2019, before the pandemic.

“We suspect the change may be one of the many implications of COVID-19, including more people ordering restaurant takeaway and consuming more individually packaged foods,” GCSC spokesperson Julia Wakeling said in a press release.

While food- and beverage-related litter accounted for a greater percentage of waste uncovered by GCSC than in the past, it wasn’t the single largest category of items picked up through the program last year.

That dubious honour goes to cigarette butts and other smoking-related paraphernalia, which comprised nearly 29 per cent of all items collected. There were more than 83,000 cigarette butts among the 42,000 kilograms of waste found and clean up last year.

So-called “tiny trash” – little pieces of plastic and foam – also accounted for a sizeable share of the waste, making up 26.8 per cent of the total haul.

In addition to smoking-related items and tiny trash, the main pieces of litter removed by GCSC volunteers last year included nearly 22,000 food wrappers, more than 17,500 pieces of paper, more than 13,000 bottle caps and more than 10,000 beverage cans.

Discarded face masks and other forms of personal protective equipment were also detected and cleaned up, although not tallied in their own category.  PPE waste has been repeatedly cited as a concern by environmental advocates during the pandemic; a robin in Chilliwack, B.C. is the earliest known example of an animal that died due to coronavirus-related litter.

The GCSC is an annual program organized by Ocean Wise and the World Wildlife Fund Canada. Its operations were disrupted by the pandemic as well; only 15,000 volunteers took part in the program last year, versus 85,000 in 2019, due to delays and public health restrictions making large group clean-ups impossible.

Still, there was GCSC participation from every province and the Northwest Territories in 2020. Nearly half of the volunteers who took part were based in B.C., where the program began in 1994.

Data from past GCSC reports was used as part of the research backing Canada’s ban on certain single-use plastic items, which is scheduled to take effect by the end of 2021.

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Canada: Significant Changes To Canada’s Federal Environmental Protection Regime Proposed

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On April 13, 2021, the government of Canada proposed significant changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (“CEPA”)1 through the introduction of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act (the “Amendments“).2

With these Amendments, the government hopes to modernize Canada’s environmental regime which has not undergone significant change in over 20 years. CEPA is the primary statute through which the federal government regulates and protects the environment. CEPA and its accompanying regulations regulate among other things the treatment and disposal of chemicals and hazardous waste, vehicle and engine emissions, equipment and other sources of pollution, and the prevention and impact of environmental emergencies such as oil and chemical spills.

This bulletin provides an overview of the major changes to CEPA that have been proposed.

The Right to a Healthy Environment and Certain Soft Rights

Significantly, the Preamble under the Amendments will officially recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. Section 2 of CEPA will require the government to protect that right when making decisions relating to the environment.3

The Amendments set out specific obligations the government must undertake to safeguard this right, including developing an implementation framework to set out how this right will be considered in the administration of CEPA as well as conducting research, studies and monitoring activities to support this goal.

In addition, the Preamble will recognize some additional considerations, including confirming the government’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as well as recognizing the importance of considering vulnerable persons, reducing or replacing the use of animal testing, and the right of Canadians to have access to information on product labels.

Project Impact Assessment

With respect to risk assessments under CEPA, under the new provisions the federal government must consider impacts on vulnerable populations and possible cumulative effects of the proposed conduct. Vulnerable populations will include groups of people with elevated biological susceptibility, such as children, and groups with elevated exposure risks, such an indigenous communities. Consideration of cumulative effects of proposed conduct takes a holistic approach to substance management by considering the compounding risks of exposure to various chemicals during daily life rather than looking at substances on their own.

Chemicals Management

The federal government has identified the management of chemicals as a key target area under the new CEPA.

The Amendments thus propose to overhaul this regime in order to better protect Canadians from the evolving risks of harmful chemicals and pollution. To accomplish this, the government has proposed wide ranging changes relating to risk assessment, public accountability, management of toxic substances and new substances, which are discussed in turn below.

Risk Assessment

The government must consult, develop and publish a Plan of Chemicals Management Priorities which will set out an integrated plan for the risk assessment of various chemical substances currently being used in Canada. The Plan will establish priorities for the management of substances, taking into account a number of factors including among others the views of stakeholders and partners, public comments, the effects on vulnerable populations, the toxicity of the substance, the ability to disrupt biological reproduction or endocrine systems, and whether there are safer and more sustainable alternatives.4 The government will also be empowered to make geographically targeted regulations to address pollution “hot spots”.

Additionally, the Amendments will establish a mechanism through which any person can submit a request to the Minister to assess a substance to determine its toxicity and risk to the environment. The Minister must provide a response within 90 days, indicating whether they intend to assess the substances and their reasons for their decision.

Public Accountability Framework

The Amendments intend to increase transparency and public participation in risk assessments by the government for the categorization and management of potentially toxic chemicals. Currently, CEPA contains a public accountability framework under section 77 and provides time limits for the government to assess substances under sections 91 and 92. However, these provisions only apply to certain risk assessments being conducted by the government such as substances placed on the Domestic Substances List that in the opinion of the Minister present the greatest potential for exposure to Canadians or are persistent or bio-accumulative. The proposed Amendments plan to amend section 77 to expand these transparency and accountability measures to all substance risk assessments for toxic or capable of being toxic substances, with the exception of assessments for new substances.5

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Scientists, Homalco First Nation team up to probe massive B.C. landslide — and its impact on salmon

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When the side of a B.C. mountain gave way on Nov. 28, 2020, crashing into a glacier fed lake and creating a 100-metre high tsunami, no one was around to see the destruction or hear the sound of rocks and trees tearing through the valley below. 

But scientists say the force, which was picked up by seismographs across North America, was the equivalent of a 4.9-magnitude earthquake. 

Fortunately, no one was in the slide’s path, but experts believe that a melting glacier likely contributed by making the slope less stable — and climate change means it is a growing risk. 

As more of Canada’s glaciers recede, scientists say there is great interest in finding out what exactly triggered this slide, and how the rocks and sediment have impacted the salmon population of nearby Elliot Creek and Southgate River. 

The mountain, which is located about 220 km north west of Vancouver, is on the traditional territory of the Homalco First Nation. 

It’s an area of remote wilderness, only accessible by air or by boating 80 km up Bute Inlet.

When the slide hit last year, more than 18 million cubic meters of rock barrelled down the slope hitting the lake within 30 seconds. 

“That is the equivalent of all of the cars in Canada coming down the hill at once,” said Marten Geertsema, a geomorphologist who works with the B.C. government studying landslides. 

He is one of several scientists, along with members from the Homalco First Nation, who have been studying the landslide and its cascading environmental impact on the watershed and salmon habitat. 

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