Uproar in Pakistan against proposed media legislation

15 September 2021, Sapan News Service: There is an uproar in Pakistan about a controversial new media regulatory body termed as an “ill-conceived, dictatorial concept” being pushed through by the Ministry of Information. Minister of Information Fawad Chowdhry had tried to push through something similar in his previous tenure, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, which was unsuccessful.

On Monday, in an unprecedented development, reporters covering the joint parliamentary session found the door to the press gallery locked. This, despite the fact that the Parliamentary Reporters Association had assured the National Assembly Speaker that reporters would not create any disturbance in the Press Gallery in protest against the PMDA.

The proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) legislation has been decried and unanimously rejected by rights, media and journalists’ bodies including the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS), Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND), the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), Supreme Court Bar Association, Pakistan (SCBA), political parties and international media and journalists bodies as well as media and human rights watchdogs.

The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and journalists for press freedom, has expressed its support for protests launched by journalists in Pakistan against the PMDA legislation and urged the government to withdraw it.

Tweet by Murtaza Solangi on IPI report:

Tweet by Geo reporter Faizan Lakhani with video of Imran Khan pronouncments on media freedom:

Tweet by Naya Daur Managing Editor Ailia Zehra with video of Asma Shirazi speech at journalists protest

The Joint Action Committee of Media against PMDA has issued an explainer on what the government’s proposed media authority is and why so many are opposing it. Excerpts:

“The controversial law is ill conceived on all counts: it proposes to set up all media (print, television, radio, films, social media and digital) control under one body, ignoring the fact that each media platform has unique dynamics and characteristics and cannot be governed under one authority.

“Print for instance, comes under the provincial domain. With 150 TV channels (still growing), over 300 radio stations, 3000 print publications, numerous digital and social media platforms, 1000 cable operators, numerous film production houses, it is practically impossible for one authority to govern them. It will only breed more inefficiency and will lead to corruption as well as stifling healthy discussion and debate which is a must for a growing democracy. Nowhere in the democratic world is there such an example. Moreover, individual regulatory bodies that regulate respective media platforms already exist.

“Besides, a regulator must be independent of government control. However, governmental control over the appointment and removal process makes this proposed body another bureaucratic addition. A body headed by a serving grade 21-22 officer of the federal government cannot by any means be considered as independent. In the presence of provisions like “power of federal government to issue directives” of binding nature to such body make it further subservient to the government.”

On the question of addressing fake news on social media that the government claims PMDA is in part, a response to, the explainer says that cybercrime and defamation laws already exist “that the government uses when this is in its own interest”.

“By trying to control YouTube channels, Facebook pages and Instagram accounts, the government will stifle free speech.”

“It is practically impossible to regulate digital media. The platforms that these accounts are run from do not have any on ground presence in Pakistan. Moreover, these platforms are not inclined to remove content that falls under freedom of speech. Fake news on social media can only be dealt with through strong defamation laws, which is the case throughout the world.

“Pakistan has cybercrime laws but there is a backlog of cases as well as weak implementation. Moreover, platforms such as Facebook have strong monitoring and if fake news is reported to them, they do remove copyright/fake/videos depicting violence. Given their monitoring, the government would be off looking into how they can aid in controlling fake news.

“Additionally, there are available applications that the government can develop and use to monitor fake news being posted online. There are a lot of tried and tested avenues, but it seems as if with this government the issue is not of law and rules, but of control and power. Some in the government apparently want to control the media through a one-shop stop for vested concentrated power.”

PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addresses the journalist sit-in outside the parliament. — Photo courtesy: PPP Instagram

The ministry of information claims that media owners are against PMDA because it includes a proposal for Media Tribunals (media courts) to address issues between workers and media houses, to help workers get their rights.

The Joint Action Committee says these are “divide and conquer” tactics. Worker rights tribunals already exist, along with labour courts and other courses of action for settlement of worker disputes.

“The setting up of media tribunals is not for workers but is a facade. The aim is to bypass high courts and create NAB and anti-terrorism like courts to ‘fix’ journalists and their stories and pressure media houses to do the same. The ministry would like to fast track cases where even the right for appeal doesn’t exist with the High Court, but only the Supreme Court -where there are already huge case backlogs. The aim is to control tribunal individuals which is a lot easier to do than to control and influence High Courts which is the key pillar of the judicial system. Media tribunals are the most dangerous part of the PMDA.”

There are various practical concerns regarding the PMDA also. The board governing the PMDA envisages only four stakeholders from the private sector, out of at least 12 major stakeholders.

“The PMDA board will include 50% government officials and 50% media stakeholders, which is eight in all. How do they plan to get four representatives from at least 12 stakeholders like PBA, APNS, CPNE, AEMEND, PFUJ, cable operators, film producers, digital representatives, and 2-3 different workers bodies? PMDA also proposes to issue licenses to media outlets which already exist for TV and radio.

“PMDA proposes penalties on media houses and journalists up to Rs 250 million and prison sentences up to five years or more. It proposes increased government control by appointing bureaucrats at key positions. The government historically has the biggest conflict of interest and has repeatedly tried to stifle the press so that their own governance and alleged corruption is not highlighted and brought to the public.  The structure of the complaints councils and authority is a replica of the existing PEMRA complaint and authority structure. Why is there a need for a new one? The involvement of so-called independent members is a sham as it already exists but has never been implemented properly due to that conflict of interest.”

The Joint Action committee agrees that the broadcast sector must be regulated. “However, the question remains about what should be regulated.”

  1. The Committee says the following aspects need to be regulated:
  2. Transparency and fairness in allocation and licensing of broadcasting frequencies
  3. Prevention of undue concentration media ownership in the sector
  4. Protection of net neutrality, which requires equal ability to access and disseminate information, opinions, perspectives, etc. online.

“Content regulation or censorship of dissenting voices must not fall in the purview of the regulator. Instead, there is a need to make the existing bodies effective, independent and to effectively implement existing rules and laws. The existing regulatory bodies should be more neutrally represented by stakeholders and intellectuals and not by government representatives who are under pressure to serve their masters. The chairman and board members should have independence and add credibility to regulatory institutions. Defamation laws should be more efficient. The answer is definitely not in setting up another supra authority which is bound to breed more corruption and become more inefficient.”

Why is the information ministry pushing the PDMA at this time?

“It seems the Information Ministry has some ambitious people who want to control the media at all costs, for some special projects which may be of a personal nature.”

“First, the ministry said the leaked draft of the PDMA was fake. Then the ministry said almost all stakeholders are supporting this draft. Then the ministry said that most were consulted on it and minor changes had been made. Then the ministry stated that journalist associations are supporting the draft. Each time, the ministry was proven wrong.”

Journalists have ended their protest outside the parliament for now. The PFUJ federal executive Council is meeting in Lahore, September 15-17, to discuss the matter.

Update from Pakistan: Due to the media unity, government is finally talking to all stakeholders about the proposed media bill and has pretty much backtracked on the original idea.

— Beena Sarwar

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