BLACK day. Witch-hunt. Silencing dissent. The outrage against the government’s plan to introduce media tribunals — special courts to expeditiously handle media-related complaints — generated the usual tropes deployed by media associations, rights groups and broader civil society to denounce censorship. But while the backlash against the government’s plans rang familiar, the suggestion to introduce media courts indicates a new level of egregiousness in the ongoing state clampdown on the media.
Following widespread critique of the suggestion, the government last week somewhat backed down, and promised to engage with industry stakeholders before pushing through the idea of media courts. But it has also defended the concept, arguing that prompt judicial handling of complaints against the media will protect and empower the media and its democratic function by holding the sector accountable. This lip service — like the idea of media tribunals itself — betrays the government’s lack of understanding of the role and importance of a free press in a democracy.
The government has proposed that the special courts would handle media-related complaints that are currently addressed at various independent forums such as the media regulator Pemra’s Council of Complaints, the Press Council of Pakistan, and the Wage Board Implementation Tribunal (ie, they would be redundant at inception). The courts would be able to take suo motu action, and appeals processes would be handled at the high court or Supreme Court level.
As such, the idea of the media tribunals (and the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, or PMRA, that preceded it) is antithetical to a basic understanding of a free press. Such a construct would insert the legislative and judicial branches of the state into regulation and oversight of the media, which presents an obvious conflict.
The government has no understanding of the role of a free press.
In the Pakistani context, too, the existence of media courts would have a doubly chilling effect than already exerted by the state’s use of the law to silence journalists. (A Pakistan Press Foundation report counted that seven journalists and one owner of a media organisation faced legal action in 2018, while there were more than 31 instances in which media personnel were issued show-cause notices or suspended, or websites were blocked.)
The state’s argument that media courts are needed to hold the industry more accountable perpetuates an inaccurate ‘us vs them’ narrative. While a romantic concept, the role of the press cannot be reduced to ‘establishment vs anti-establishment’, ‘authoritarianism vs freedom’. It is a key component of a democracy and should be regulated as such (and nothing more).
The fundamentals of democracy are participation (through polls) and transparency (whereby elected representatives remain beholden to the public). The media is intrinsic to both these concepts: it informs citizens so that their votes can be meaningfully cast; and it holds those in power to account by scrutinising their activities. The media’s key role in the latter function highlights why media courts are an inane idea.
The Council to Protect Journalists previously pointed out that the government’s lack of interest in the media’s value to democracy became apparent in an early draft bill proposing the PMRA, which envisioned Pakistan as a “hub for multimedia information and content services” but made no mention of the media’s watchdog role.
This government is particularly prone to mistaking the media’s role as PR. Even while backtracking on the tribunals, Firdous Ashiq Awan, the media spokesperson, said that some corrective mechanism would need to be introduced because Pakistan’s media organisations routinely harmed the national interest and publicised news that deterred foreign investors. (Clearly, she has not learned to stop conflating press and PR despite a backlash against a series of anti-media tweets from the PTI’s official Twitter handle in July).
Attempts to denigrate the media are also dangerously discrediting the value of free expression. The concepts of free speech and free press are deployed in a jumble, and primarily used to imply that journalists take cover under free speech allowances to irresponsibly say whatever they want. This is nonsense. Journalism is a responsible self-regulated activity in the public service, and answerable under defamation, slander and libel laws. Free speech is also not limitless.
Finally, it is audacious to raise the idea of media courts in the context of expediting rulings on complaints against the press. We live in a country where journalists are killed with impunity — three reporters have been killed this year alone. If there are to be media courts, let them have the sole purpose of prosecuting journalists’ killers.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2019