ISLAMABAD: A total of 19 organisations and 36 prominent individuals have rejected a Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) proposal to regulate internet television and over-the-top (OTT) content services.

The critics described the proposal as an attempt to gag voices that have disappeared from mainstream electronic media and turned to internet television, also known as web TV.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Aurat March Karachi, Bolo Bhi, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (Irada), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the People’s Commission for Minorities Rights are among the organisations, while prominent individuals include Pakistan Bar Council Vice Chairman Abid Saqi, rights activist Tahira Abdullah and journalists Nasir Zaidi, Adnan Rehmat, Asma Shirazi and Badar Alam.

Aftab Alam, a representative of Irada, told Dawn that Pemra floated the proposal on its website on Jan 8. It said that it wanted to regulate internet television and OTT content services offered by various websites that people can pay to access.

He said that Pemra initially sought comments by Jan 31, but the last date has now been extended to Feb 14.

“Pemra has stated that it is an issue of market competition and needs to be regulated,” Mr Alam added.

He said that Irada, DRF, Bolo Bhi and the Freedom Network analysed the proposal and concluded that it aimed to gag independent voices.

“A number of journalists have been disappeared from the mainstream electronic media, so they have created their own web TV and are freely sharing their opinions. It seems that efforts are being made to control those voices,” he said.

He added that live streaming on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter would also be considred web TV.

“In the proposal, it states that Pemra would issue web TV licences; the licence fee for an entertainment channel would be Rs5m and the licence fee for current affairs web TV would be Rs10m,” he said.

Mr Alam said a consultation on this matter was held a few days ago, during which “organisations and individuals decided to reject the proposal” because they felt it was an attempt to gag voices who were speaking out against corruption and inappropriate decisions made by the government.

He added that Pemra noted in the proposal available on its website that such a practice is not being followed in most countries and so far only four countries have tried to introduce such policies and have failed to implement them.

A statement issued by the concerned stakeholders regarding the proposal said: “We the public, citizens of Pakistan, the media sector and its practitioners, digital rights advocates, human rights groups, legal fraternity and the broader civil society in general, are alarmed and angry at recent government attempts clearly aimed at curtailing our fundamental rights to free speech and access to information through blatant attempts to restrict our digital rights and hijacking of internet and cyberspace to curb open discourse and online socio-economic freedoms and pluralisms, as well as distorting and limiting the media market.”

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2020