In a bid to converge multiple media regulatory bodies in Pakistan and expand the ambit of regulation for digital media, the government has proposed the formation of the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA).
The PMDA has been conceived as a regulatory body that can “cater to the professional and business requirements of all forms of media and their users”, according to a government proposal, and is meant to replace the current “fractured” regulatory environment and “fragmented” media regulation by multiple bodies.
This means that according to the proposal, the PMDA solely will be responsible for the regulation of print, broadcast and digital media in Pakistan.
“This will be a new statutory institution established to regulate films, electronic, print and digital media in Pakistan in the age of meta data, digital and social media, and internet-based content and advertisements,” the proposal explains.
Under an ordinance drafted for the establishment of the authority, all previous laws pertaining to media regulation, control or indirect control will likely be abolished and fresh legislation will be enacted, giving legal cover to the PMDA and its functions.
So what exactly will the PMDA do?
It has been proposed that the PMDA be given the authority to register digital media platforms, monitor and analyse them and ensure the enforcement of cyber laws. This could mean that a licence will have to be obtained from the PMDA to set up a digital media platform in the future if the authority is set up.
In that case, digital media is also likely to see more stringent regulation and control by the government.
Presently, social media regulatory functions are limited to the “criminal acts of cybercrime” and digital media regulation to the blocking of sites, the document seen by Dawn.com states.
Giving another example, the document states that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has no control over the “content of media reporting projected via cell phones”.
The PMDA, if it is set up, will have the authority to impose sanctions on media entities in case of any violations of regulations — which too will be framed by it — and greater control on the content published and shared on digital media.
Among the proposed approaches for media regulation are issuing guidelines to media "for code of conduct and national security issues" and establishing a wing within the PMDA for "forensic cyber audit".
Moreover, the body is planned to increase the monitoring of revenues generated through online advertisements.
“Undocumented and unregulated” online advertisements mean there are chances of “revenue leaks and tax evasion”, it has been pointed out in the proposal.
Therefore, the authority will issue guidelines for internet-based advertising and revenue generated from it.
Broadcast, print and films
The PMDA will also be responsible for regulating broadcast and print media. It will issue no-objection certificates (NOCs) for film production and exhibition, issue licences for and monitor broadcast media, and register print media entities.
In addition to its regulatory function, the authority will determine media employees’ wages and resolve wage disputes.
Media complaints council
Under the proposal, the federal government will set up media complaints councils in all major cities to receive, scrutinise, investigate and review complaints pertaining to content published or broadcast on media platforms and the non-payment of wages to media workers.
These councils will have the authority to summon persons against whom complaints are lodged and seek an explanation from them.
In case a person wants to file an appeal challenging the decision of any of the councils or PMDA, they will be able to approach a tribunal operating under the authority. No other body but the Supreme Court will have the jurisdiction to question the legality of “anything done or any decision taken under the [PMDA] ordinance”, the proposal states.
Led by chairpersons of high court-judge level, these tribunals will have the power to hand punishments of up to three years in jail and Rs25 million in fines to content producers for violating the new provisions, according to an earlier Dawn report.
Experts cry foul
The proposal to establish the media regulatory authority has met with criticism from journalists, activists and the opposition.
Representative media organisations, including the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors and factions of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, have termed the proposed ordinance "an unconstitutional and draconian law".
Condemning the proposal, a press release issued by the PBA on Tuesday said the authority was "aimed against the freedom of press and expression" and a step towards imposing state control over media operations.
"The proposed PMDA is intended to hinder media freedoms and take control [of] the media by the top information bureaucracy," the press release read. "The concept is an attempt to tighten [the] federal government's hold over the media through one draconian authority ignoring the fact that print, electronic and digital media are separate entities, each with their own defined features and respective regulatory laws."
Media bodies quoted in the press release went on to dub the PMFDA ordinance an "extension of [the] now defunct Press and Publications Ordinance 1963 of the Ayub Khan era", having regimental provisions to take over independent and free media.
The statement said media bodies had decided to resist the establishment of the PMDA at all levels and form a joint action committee for the purpose.
Meanwhile, the proposal continued to draw criticism on Twitter.
Renowned journalist Mazhar Abbas called for all media stakeholders to stay alert about the "proposed media law in the name of Media Development", and said it appeared to be aimed at sabotaging the Journalists Protection Bill.
PML-N information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb termed the PMDA a "repressive & punitive instrument to suppress constitutional freedom of expression of print media, electronic media, and online citizen journalism".
PPP Senator Sherry Rehman termed the proposed PMDA ordianace "media martial law".
Earlier, Rehman had said in a statement that the disastrous effect this ordinance would have on media and freedom of expression was “unacceptable”.
She had alleged that actions of intolerance towards independent journalism were constantly increasing under the present government, ading that Pakistan ranked 145 out of 180 countries on media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Index, and instead of taking action to fix this, the government was trying to push through the PMDA ordinance which would act as a tool for institutionalising censorship.
“The civil society and media rights groups have termed the ordinance media martial law. Through this media outlets will either become state mouthpieces or go under.”
Prior to that, the PFUJ, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) had rejected the proposed ordinance in a joint statement.
“The proposed law is draconian in scope and devastating in its impact on the constitutional principles and guarantees for freedom of expression, media freedoms, and the right to information as well as the profession of journalism,” they had said in a joint statement.
The bodies had vowed to resist such "draconian" steps by taking into confidence trade unions, academia, political parties and citizens’ organisations.