Media courts

Published September 20, 2019

AN extraordinarily unwise and provocative idea, rather than having been discarded after due reflection, is instead being embraced by the PTI government.

The federal cabinet on Tuesday approved the setting up of ‘media courts’, ostensibly to expedite the disposal of media-related complaints within 90 days. This was followed by the government spokesperson, Firdous Ashiq Awan, saying the bill is to be presented in parliament, with media organisations brought on board later if it is passed.

According to the plan, Pemra and the Press Council of Pakistan will refer cases to these ‘tribunals’ which will be monitored by the superior courts.

On Thursday however, Ms Awan appeared to backtrack a little and said that the draft had not been finalised, and no decision will be taken without consulting the stakeholders.

These qualifiers notwithstanding, no one buys the fiction that such courts are desired for any benign purpose.

After at least a year of unrelenting assault on the freedom of the press, we can be sure the proposed tribunals will be yet another device to harass and persecute outspoken journalists.

Of course, no government relishes a truly free and independent media. Military dictatorships by definition are the most authoritarian extreme, and a compliant media is the conduit for promoting their one-dimensional narrative.

The press during Gen Zia’s regime was made to submit to the indignity of censors at the Press Information Department vetting every news report, and later, to a plethora of ‘press advices’.

Even democratic governments would like nothing better than to police the media. In 2017, for instance, during the PML-N government, the proposed Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority would have required newspapers to renew their licence on a yearly basis — a brazen ploy to ensure compliance. The government, however, hastily retreated in the face of vociferous opposition from journalists and civil society.

The PTI government has now gone a step further in its indifference to the furore that erupted at the suggestion of media courts a couple of months ago.

An independent press is supposed to hold the authorities’ feet to the fire; for the government to insert itself into the system that regulates the media presents an obvious conflict of interest. One can, in fact, ask whether this latest move has anything to do with television anchors of late becoming a tad more critical of the government’s performance, something that has undoubtedly discomfited some PTI legislators.

Instead of acquiring the reputation of a regime that recalls the darkest days of censorship, the government should strengthen Pemra and PCP by respecting their autonomy rather than proposing a system whereby they would function as mere post offices.

Moreover, if they are indeed set up, what punishments will the courts be empowered to mete out? Should we expect public floggings of journalists, as in the days of Gen Zia?

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2019

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