National Press Club a safe haven for activists

ISLAMABAD: Situated in the capital`s posh sector and in close proximity to the sensitive Red Zone area, National Press Club (NPC) has been in the news in the national and international media for the past two weeks because of the ongoing sitin by the Baloch protesters.

Despite facing financial crunch, the office-bearers of the NPC have been making every effort to facilitate the protesters, particularly women and children who have been bracing the winter nights under the open sky, considering the place as a safe haven for them.

The NPC has been in the spotlight for nearly two decades when media workers, lawyers, civil society and rights activists selected the venue for their protests and other activities during the rule of military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf.

There are a number of reasons for the selection of the NPC as the venue for protests and press conferences. The press club charges a meagre amount for staging protests and press conferences compared to hotels and other places. Secondly, it has been a tradition that personnel of law enforcement agencies, including thepolice, do not enter the press club`s premises for any action.

Before the ongoing Baloch protesters` sit-in, the NPC had been in the limelight since the May 9 incidents when members of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), most of them who had been under police detention, started making appearances one by one to hold news conferences to `denounce the violent protests` in the aftermath of the arrest of the PTI founder and former prime minister Imran Khan.

Some of them announced quitting the PTI and some even completely disassociated themselves from politics.

In the aftermath of the May 9 violent protests, the significance of the press conferences has taken precedence over judicial directives or orders aimed at ensuring the non-arrest of PTI leaders. The leaders were released from the confines of Adiala jail, a distance of nearly 39km from the NPC, and made their way directly to the club to make announcements of their political defections.

Retired Maj Khurram Hameed Rokhri was the first PTI leader to announce his defection at the NPC on May 10, and after that, it was an almost daily occurrences, with 26 press conferences held at the press club between May 10 and June 26.Kashif Chaudhry`s press conference on June 26 was the last held by a PTI leader from the NPC platform. Prominent PTI politicians who made their announcements of defections at the NPC included Asad Umar, Saifullah Niazi, Mussarat Cheema, Javed Cheema, Fayyazul Hassan Chohan, Firdous Ashig Awan, Rana Nazir, Maleeka Bokhari and Aamir Mehmood Kiani.

Since June 26, the tempo of news conferences shifted to the rest of the country as majority of these announcements were made at private hotels or regional press clubs, or via video messages.

Not only the PTI deserters, the new office-bearers of the party mostly the lawyers are also holding news conferences at the NPC almost on a daily basis to highlight the alleged highhandedness with the party during the trial of the party leaders in various cases as well as in the election process.

The second phase of press conferences at the NPC commenced on August 5.

PTI spokesperson and lawyer Shoaib Shaheen held a series of news conferences to defend the party`s stance and reply to the accusations. He has held at least 18 news conferences until now with the primary goal of restoring the moraleof party workers.

The third phase involved the assignment of a new responsibility to another PTI lawyer who had previously been elected as the party`s vice-president. The outspoken, Sher Afzal Marwat, made his first appearance at the NPC on November 9 to unveil a fresh plan to woo new members. The announcement of the third phase marked the beginning of the effort to attract new members to the PTI. At seven separate press conferences held during this phase, Mr Marwat announced new membership for the PTI. At this point, the lawyers` decision to join the party followed reports that Imran Khan would distribute tickets mostly to lawyers.

Nevertheless, these press conferences became a big source of revenue for the club at a time when the country`s economy was slowly recovering from the effects of recession. The remuneration earned from a press conference stands at an estimated Rs40,000. This means a lot for the club, whose main source of earning money is by staging press conferences.

Talking to Dawn, NPC President Anwar Raza confirmed that the press club had received a `handsome amount` through these press conferences, especially at a time when the club direly needed funds.

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