Journalists across Pakistan are expressing outrage over a proposed set of regulations they warn will further curtail press freedom and dramatically bolster the powers of a government that is already seen as imposing censorship to control the media and free speech.
The government-proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) would combine the functions of several federal and provincial agencies currently regulating the print, electronic, and digital media.
Journalists, however, maintain there are ulterior motives behind the proposal, first floated in May with the purported aim of streamlining media regulations.
“If implemented, this will prove an open-air jail for journalists,” said journalist and anchor Hamid Mir, who in May was banned from hosting his popular primetime show, Capital Talk, on Pakistan’s top Urdu-language Geo TV channel.
Mir, who survived being shot five times by unidentified attackers in Karachi in April 2014, said he thinks Pakistan will resemble China and Iran with such media laws.
“We want to make it clear that there can’t be any talks over the PDMA bill or even making another umbrella body or authority under any other name,” said a September 16 statement by Shahzada Zulfiqar and Nasir Zaidi, leaders of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
'Single Regulatory Authority'
While the government now denies having proposed the bill, the authorities gave journalists a PDF of the proposed regulation months ago. One such copy, prepared in a PowerPoint format and obtained by RFE/RL, includes a title page labeled “Proposal on proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) framework.”
“[The aim of this framework] is to regulate electronic, print, digital media, and films under a single regulatory authority,” the document said, adding that the new body would effectively merge the current Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), Press Council of Pakistan (PCP), Central Board of Films Censors (CBFC), Press Registrar Office, Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), and Implementation Tribunal for Newspapers Employees (ITNE).
Journalists fear the proposed law would repeal a long list of existing legislation regulating electronic media, motion pictures, the press and news agencies, and newspapers.
Pakistan has roughly 150 television channels, more than 300 radio stations, around 3,000 print publications, 1,000 cable operators, and various film production houses besides the sprawling digital and social media platforms.
Journalists say it is practically impossible to control all those under a single authority, particularly in light of provincial regulatory layers.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry says neither his ministry nor the government shared any draft bill with journalists, but multiple journalists who spoke to Radio Mashaal shared identical copies of what they said they had received from the government.
In addition to licensing authority, the proposed body could investigate complaints against individual journalists and media outlets. Its complaints commission could “receive, scrutinize, investigate, and review complaints made by persons or organizations against any aspects of news, analysis, programs on print, broadcast, films, and online platforms,” according to the proposed PMDA framework.
Aside from mainstream opposition parties, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and representatives for lawyers and civil rights activists also announced their support for the protesting journalists.
Senior figures from the Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and other politicians visited the journalists’ protest camp in front of parliament on September 13 and voiced support for press freedom in the country.
“We would not let this pass through the parliament,” vowed Pakistan Muslim League President Shahbaz Sharif, who leads the opposition in the National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani parliament.
Pakistan’s ruling Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party and its allies hold a narrow majority in the 342-seat National Assembly and can easily pass the bill in the lower house, but the combined opposition's majority in the Senate presents a bigger challenge.
It could also face further obstacles even after its passage.
“We will challenge the bill in the courts if the government manages to pass it from the parliament,” vowed Bhutto Zaradri, who is parliamentary leader of the PPP in the National Assembly.
Media in Pakistan have been under mounting pressure since the PTI was declared victorious in the 2018 parliamentary elections and Imran Khan was sworn as prime minister.
Dozens of prominent journalists have quit or been forced to leave their television shows while hundreds of others were sacked by their newspapers, television, or radio channels in the name of financial constraints. Those who still work have openly complained of self-censorship within their organizations.
A number of print journalists have frequently turned to social media to post columns that they alleged were being censored by newspaper management or editors.
Well-known television faces such as Talat Hussain, Murtaza Solangi, and Matiullah Jan launched YouTube channels after their shows were suspended.
Najam Sethi, another senior Pakistani journalist known for his political predictions and insider scoops, launched a YouTube show during months of absence from TV before recently returning to his popular show on Channel 24 TV.
In July, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) put Prime Minister Khan on its list of the world’s 37 worst rulers with respect to press freedom, citing journalist beatings, the jamming of TV signals, and threats to withdraw crucial government-funded advertising.
Pakistan angrily rejected the RSF assessment by saying the government believed in media independence. In a statement, the Information Ministry termed the report an attempt “to malign the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan, without any corroborative evidence.”
'Threatened, Abducted, Tortured'
Apart from facing threats of being slashed out and booted off the air, journalists are also regularly abducted, threatened, beaten, and even killed for their reporting, talk shows, and social-media comments.
“Journalists who cross the red lines have been threatened, abducted, and tortured,” says the report.
Outspoken journalist Matiullah Jan was beaten and abducted outside a school in Islamabad in July 2020 before being released 12 hours later. Asad Ali Toor, a TV reporter and blogger, was beaten inside his Islamabad apartment by unidentified armed men in May. One month earlier, senior journalist Absar Alam was shot outside his home in Islamabad.
The government has invariably promised inquiries and action. However, no case has been successfully prosecuted.
In its World Press Freedom Day 2021 report, media watchdog Freedom Network called Islamabad the “most dangerous” place to practice journalism. The report says 34 percent of violations were recorded in Islamabad, including legal cases, threats, and detentions. Journalists also face the threat of being labeled as “anti-Pakistan,” “an enemy agent,” and “pro-India,” and sometimes are even labeled with allegations of blasphemy.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) ranks Pakistan the fifth most dangerous country, citing 138 journalist deaths between 1990 and 2020.
Journalist Mir says the government's effort to introduce the proposed laws through a presidential ordinance four months ago was postponed after journalists opposed the move.
“I myself criticized the proposed laws in my last show -- just before my ban -- but the ban was not related to that particular show on May 27,” Mir said.
He says representatives of the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) later shared details of the government proposal with him. “The PBA shared the proposal with me, and I raised the issue with [Information Minister] Chaudhry. But the minister told me they are just discussing this.”
Chaudhry, Mir said, later told a parliamentary standing committee on information that the PMDA head would be nominated by the government.
Journalists' unions say their major concerns are that a government nominee will head the committee, the law would replace five separate bodies with a single entity, authority will be centralized, media tribunals will be established, and if a tribunal finds someone guilty for what the government claims is false news, the person could be imprisoned for three years. The potential fine for working journalists is up to 50 million rupees ($298,000) while for the owner of a TV or YouTube channel it’s 250 million rupees.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls the proposed media law an attempt by the Pakistani authorities to seek control over the media. In an August 23 article, Patricia Gossman, an associate director for the Asia division at HRW, writes that “with journalists under relentless attack for doing their jobs, the Pakistan government needs to stop trying to control reporters and instead start protecting media freedom.”
Shakil Anjum, the national press club president, told Radio Mashaal that the government itself shared the proposed draft with them but is now refusing to own the draft law.
“With the introduction of this law, the government tries to hide its weaknesses and discourage and pressurize journalists from criticizing it," Anjum said. "What they are trying to bring as a new law is unprecedented in Pakistan, and we would oppose it tooth and nail.”
On September 16, the government appeared to have backtracked from promulgating the PMDA bill. Government officials and representatives of the media industry formed a joint committee to address the issue of "fake news," as all major media organizations and journalists' unions continued to insist the new regulations would be unacceptable, according to Dawn, a leading English-language daily.