THE rapidness with which journalists, rights activists, lawyers and mainstream political parties have come together to defend the right to freedom of expression is obviously due to the seriousness of the establishment’s efforts to control not only the flow of information but the citizens’ thought process as well.
The challenges to the media have once again been spelt out by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development in its annual report for 2019. Bearing the spine-chilling title Coercive Censorship, Muted Dissent: Pakistan Descends into Silence, the report highlights the following instances of the media’s tribulations in 2019:
• The cabinet approved the plan to set up the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) to control publications, electronic channels and digital media; abolish the Press Council and the principle of media persons’ say in disciplinary actions against members of the fraternity; replace voluntary and perpetually valid declarations to print and publish newspapers/periodicals with licences valid for one year only, renewable by the registrar on his terms. This plan will make all forms of media dependent on the bureaucracy’s whim and caprice.
• Plan to set up media courts; stoutly rejected by media associations and rights organisations.
• Journalists killed in 2019: seven.
The biggest losers of the practice of shooting the messenger are the government and the people.
• Journalist Nasrullah sentenced to five years in prison by an anti-terrorism court for possessing literature that any investigative journalist should collect while doing a story on extremists.
• Use of the cybercrime law including in the well-known cases against Rizwanur Rahman and Shahzeb Jillani.
• The FIA starts an inquiry against journalists for posting slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s picture on social media.
• Leading magazines Herald and Newsline cease publication — the government is not free from blame.
• Need for a law to protect journalists: no progress.
• On Pemra’s excesses, the report gives details of 20 show-cause notices, five advisories, five notices and nine directives issued during the year to its licensees that amount to attempts at controlling broadcast content instead of market regulation. It also takes notice of Pemra’s orders barring the airing of programmes by TV channels and preventing the appearance of certain individuals as guests at talk shows.
• The 2016 Pemra ban on the airing of Indian content by TV channels and FM radio channels was struck down as “unreasonable restrictions” by the Lahore High Court. However, the Supreme Court restored the ban.
• In September 2019, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) informed a National Assembly standing committee that it had blocked 900,000 websites for carrying blasphemous and pornographic content and/or sentiments against the state, judiciary and the armed forces. The matter was raised before the Islamabad High Court and it ruled that the “PTA is not empowered to pass an order or take action under Section 37 of the Peca (Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act) in derogation of the mandatory requirements of due process”.
The highly controversial rules for social media are not mentioned in the report as this development took place in 2020.
Each group in the joint front for defending freedom of speech and expression is fighting for high stakes.
The media can neither inform and enlighten the masses nor can it secure their respect and trust without reporting everything that happens in the country and all that conscious citizens need to know to be able to exercise their rights, especially the right to contribute to governance.
Rights activists cannot protect human rights defenders and espouse the causes of the people, especially the poor and the marginalised, unless they enjoy the right to freedom of expression. The same is true of lawyers and political parties.
The biggest losers of the practice of shooting the messenger and muzzling the media are the government and the people. A regime of silence will deprive the government of citizens’ views on all aspects of governance and reduce its capacity to deal with problems appropriately, quickly and adequately. That the failure to allow the free flow of information and safeguard the rights of journalists could harm the country’s economy has been confirmed by the latest European Commission report on Islamabad’s compliance with the GSP-Plus regime. The report has taken note of the curtailment of space for civil society, the tendency towards suppression of dissent and the high level of impunity allowed to perpetrators of crimes against journalists. The economic cost of restrictive media policies, especially of actions that are not backed by the law, is truly prohibitive.
As regards the people, curbs on freedom of expression and the right to know will keep them in the dark about government policies and actions that potentially undermine the health and integrity of the state. Nobody can forget the huge price — disintegration of the state — paid for withholding from the people the truth about the situation in East Pakistan for two decades. The people will also be deprived of their right to participate in governance and their right to prevent the harm to national interests by wrong policies and actions.
Plans to suppress media freedom began in the final phase of the PML-N regime (2013-2018) when the creation of the PMRA was proposed. Although a letter from the information ministry was sent to the Press Council, soliciting comments on its own demise, the then information minister denied any knowledge of the scheme. The promoters of the plan did not rest during the caretaker regime and within six months of the formation of the present government they had the PMRA plan approved by the cabinet. Then they are said to have sprung a surprise on the PTI leadership by notifying the utterly unacceptable rules under the cybercrime law.
The government cannot be happy about being led by the nose by a group/cell that has been gunning for the media. It is time a committee was set up to identify the group/cell responsible for devising media gag measures and causing much embarrassment to the government and the PTI leadership and call upon it to justify its manoeuvres.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2020