The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Wednesday said it was "deeply concerned" over the government's announcement to set up media tribunals.
"Given the government's woeful record on press freedoms, HRCP urges it to refrain from pressurising the media further," the rights group said in a tweet. "How are tribunals expected to maintain the media's independence?"
The HRCP's statement comes a day after the federal cabinet approved a plan to set up ‘‘media courts’’ to apparently seek speedy disposal of media-related cases within a particular time limit of 90 days. The plan was approved by the federal cabinet during a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan at the PM Office.
PPP Senator Raza Rabbani also condemned the move today and said that curbing the media is an "attack on democracy and a violation of the Constitution". The former Senate chairperson accused the government of "threatening the media" and vowed to oppose the decision in the Parliament.
"Media is already facing censorship," he said. "The establishment of media courts is another way to threaten and pressurise the media."
While briefing reporters about the cabinet meeting yesterday, Special Assistant to the PM (SAPM) on Information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan said that the ‘‘media tribunals’’ would be formed after passage of a bill by the parliament while conceding that the government had not taken all stakeholders — including media persons, owners of media houses and media bodies — into confidence on this move.
“The prime minister has ordered that a bill envisaging formation of media tribunals be tabled in the current session of the National Assembly for a healthy debate on the issue,” she said, adding that the government “would sit with the media organisations on the matter later”.
Until now media-related cases were being dealt by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) and the Press Council of Pakistan, but now Pemra would refer such cases to media tribunals, Awan said. She assured that the "media tribunals will not only take up cases against media persons and media house owners, but also against the government."
"When Pemra takes up a case against any media organisation, it is thought that the case has been initiated at the behest of the government. Therefore, the government wants free and fair trial by the tribunals which will be regulated by superior courts," the special assistant said.
Responding to the move, PPP leader Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar had said yesterday that his party "will certainly not support any move to gag media as it is against fundamental rights of expression".
“The bill will die in the parliament as we [opposition] enjoy majority in the Senate,” he added.
Finance ministry sets up Media Monitoring Cell
Meanwhile, it emerged on Wednesday that the Ministry of Finance has announced the establishment of a Media Monitoring Cell to "monitor economy related news in the media for immediate rejoinders/rebuttals/clarifications".
In a notification dated September 16, the finance ministry announced that the cell will comprise three members: Special Secretary Finance and Spokesperson Omar Hamid Khan, Economic Adviser Imtiaz Ahmed and Director General (Media) Hamid Raza Khan. The cell will have the authority to co-opt any officer or seek assistance from any office/officer within the ministry, the notification added.