LAHORE: Opposition parties in Pakistan were at liberty to hold public rallies or protest demonstrations so long as they stayed within the ambit of law and did not damage public property, interior minister Ejaz Hussain Shah, told Arab News on Saturday.
Pakistan’s main opposition parties held protest rallies in cities across the country on Thursday, accusing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government of ruining the economy and seeking to intimidate and silence its opponents.
The so-called “Black Day” protests, a year after Khan’s party swept to power following a bitterly contested election, were marred by mounting allegations that the government was trying to stifle the protesters and block them from holding their rallies.
“There’s no impediment here,” Shah said. “The opposition can organize rallies and hold meetings. However, the government will not allow anyone to take law into their hands or damage properties.”
Prime Minister Khan himself is no stranger to protest rallies. While in opposition, he led a long march and sit-in that lasted four consecutive months in the capital, Islamabad, to protest against the 2013 general election results that had brought the Pakistan Muslim Leage-Nawaz (PML-N) into power amid allegations of election fraud. His sit-in was covered widely on all local media forums, often with live and extended coverage.
But opposition leaders said Khan’s government was not letting them hold peaceful gatherings and was infringing on their basic democratic rights alongside a media blackout of their rallies.
“The government deprived people of their right to assemble across the country, but especially in Punjab,” central information secretary of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Nafisa Shah, told Arab News on Saturday.
“It (government) registered cases against political workers, blocked roads and arrested peaceful citizens. It has failed to deliver any good to the masses and wants to hide that fact from them,” she said.
On Friday, Fawad Chaudhry, Federal Minister for Science and Technology, said Prime Minister Imran Khan was unhappy with reports of a clampdown against opposition parties.
“PM took notice of road blocks that were put up for Opposition jalsas,” Chaudhry said in a Twitter post. “He has directed the authorities that Opposition should be free to hold peaceful rallies and protests as it will only expose the Opposition as they hold no street power and people of Pakistan are sick of them.”
Members of the opposition parties however, alleged Khan himself was responsible for the barriers to assembly, and for the media blockade.
According to local media, Khan chaired a meeting of government spokespersons on Friday, and directed them not to allow convicted politicians to get media coverage. Despite repeated calls, Pakistan’s federal information minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, could not be reached for comment on the censorship of opposition rallies.
“The Prime Minister himself has asked his party spokespersons to clamp down on the opposition. The government’s attitude is very negative and the Prime Minister himself is violating the law by jeopardizing the rights of people,” Senator Pervaiz Rasheed, a senior PML-N leader told Arab News.
The PML-N’s information secretary in Punjab, Azma Zahid Bokhari said the government was attempting to “gag” the media and depriving the masses “of their right to know.”
Members of the ruling PTI repeatedly denied the allegations, and said the media was free to broadcast anything it liked.
“I am the (provincial) information minister and I challenge the opposition to bring a single proof where I have called a media owner or worker to given directions regarding the coverage of opposition rallies,” Punjab’s minister for information, Mian Aslam Iqbal said, and added, “The opposition is free to promote its agenda but hooliganism will not be allowed.”