Pakistani media advocates, human rights activists, and opposition politicians have strongly denounced the government's plan to set up special tribunals to deal with media-related cases, calling the move yet another attack on press freedom in the country.
The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) said on September 18 that the decision marked a "black day" for the Pakistani media, while the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) urged the government to "refrain from pressurizing the media further."
The statements come after Prime Minister Imran Khan's cabinet earlier this week approved a plan to establish "media courts" to process cases faster and ensure fair trials, according to Khan's special assistant for information and broadcasting, Firdous Ashiq Awan.
Media-related cases are currently being dealt by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) and the Press Council of Pakistan.
Provided the bill is approved by parliament, such cases would in the future be referred to media tribunals, which will be overseen by higher courts, Awan said.
"The whole process will be a true reflection of laws and high democratic values," she tweeted on September 17, insisting that journalists could also take complaints about the government to the media courts.
However, APNS President Hameed Haroon and Secretary-General Sarmad Ali said in a statementthat the special courts "aimed at intimidating and strangulating the media and freedom of expression."
Such courts are "not only unconstitutional but also contrary to the spirit of democracy," they also said, adding that the APNS intends to fight against the measure in parliament and the judiciary.
HRCP said that "given the government's woeful record on press freedoms, HRCP urges it to refrain from pressurizing the media further."
"How are tribunals expected to maintain the media's independence?" the nongovernmental watchdog asked in a tweet.
The opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) vowed to oppose the government’s plans in parliament, with Senator Raza Rabbani saying: "The establishment of media courts is another way to threaten and pressurize the media."
PPP leader Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said his party "will certainly not support any move to gag media," adding: "The bill will die in the parliament as [opposition parties] enjoy majority in the Senate."
Pakistan's successive governments and the powerful military has been accused for years of censoring the media.
Media freedom and human rights watchdogs have complained of growing pressure on broadcasters and newspapers to avoid covering critics of Khan's administration.
In July, Pakistani journalists demonstrated to denounce what the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists described as "unprecedented censorship” by the military and security services.
Authorities were also criticized for their decision to suspend several TV news channels from a cable network after they had broadcast a news conference by an opposition politician.
Khan, who took office in 2018, has denied censoring media.
The country is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
With reporting by Reuters and Dawn