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Will draconian press law go ahead?

Updated September 11, 2017

IT is shocking and must not be allowed to become law. The Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, a draft of which has become public, is a sinister law that regards the press and the public’s right to information as threats to the state. Although the Press Council of Pakistan has said that no “repressive laws” were being prepared, the draft is said to be have been under discussion by its members. If the inconceivable is permitted to come into existence, the Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority will abolish any semblance of press freedom in the country, reducing the media and the public that relies on it for information to virtual dependence on state propaganda and official, biased versions of news, information, analysis and opinion. Lest that appear to be hyperbole, some of the measures in the draft ordinance should be considered. The granting of publishing licences that will need to be renewed annually would effectively give the state the power to kill off publications it does not approve of. The possibility of jail terms for journalists and publishers and raids on the offices of publications deemed to violate the authority’s rules and edicts is nakedly coercive. Stacking the new authority with two-thirds of members from outside the media and granting the state the power to select the non-media members is akin to imposing state control. Perhaps most damningly, the utter secrecy in which the proposed law has been drafted speaks to the malicious intent of those behind the move.

What is truly dispiriting is that the law has been drafted on the watch of a democratically elected government, nearly a decade since the transition to democracy began and which was meant to deliver genuine democratic progress. The PPMRA draft ordinance, instead, hearkens back to the darkest days of military rule, going so far back as to evoke memories of Gen Ayub Khan’s Press and Publication Ordinance, 1960. Certainly, while media freedom can and should never be taken for granted, the media and the public have had a legitimate expectation that after the depths of the dictatorship of Gen Zia, a return to the darkest days of media censorship and control of the public would not be so blithely championed by the state itself. The government has failed in its democratic duty by allowing the PPMRA draft to even come into existence. It can now dispel doubts about its anti-press, anti-democratic intentions by publicly renouncing the possibility of introducing a new press law. The existing regulatory framework is durable and reasonable and there is no need for wholesale change. Hopefully, the government is moving towards rectifying its mistake: the information minister has spoken of an inquiry into the drafting of the ordinance.

This newspaper has vigorously defended media freedom as well as argued for a responsible media. The public is served best only by a combination of a media free from state coercion and one that exercises its freedom in the public interest. Where media abuses are discernible, this newspaper has been forthright in its criticism and urged more responsible journalism. But there can be no doubt that the proposed law is sweeping in scope and malicious in intent. The media must unite to oppose the PPMRA Ordinance if the idea is not dropped.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2017