One step forward, two back

Published June 3, 2021
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

YET another attempt to bring all mediums of speech in Pakistan under state control has come to the fore, as the Federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has issued a draft ordinance titled the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). It is important to analyse the ordinance based on its content, as well as the intent of the state based on recent attempts to control speech and press in the country.

The proposed body is to regulate print, television, electronic and digital media, altogether by merging all different regulators into one, supposedly to save money and streamline authority, which is essentially a euphemism for easing the burden of unconstitutional censorship that the state has taken upon itself. The proposal itself states that “media in democracy ideally should be self-regulatory” [sic], but proposes government regulation through a sweeping statement that “demerits outweigh the merits” for a self-regulation mechanism for all forms of media in Pakistan.

The draft from the information ministry openly admits that “controlling government advertisement expenditure as an incentive structure” exists for the government to solicit favourable coverage from media houses, and punish critical coverage, as has been seen in the past few years. This needs to change if we are to be a rights-respecting democracy. Government advertisements in the media should only worry about reaching citizens through print, broadcast and digital media rather than acting like a private empire that aligns expenditure on the basis of favourable words when the job of the media is to hold the government accountable.

Clearly, attempts to control the press triumph over attempts to protect the press in Pakistan.

A major concern with the PMDA is the attempt to lump social media together with other forms of media without realising the fundamentally different nature of the internet. Whereas the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, has been consistently abused to silence activists and journalists, the PMDA proposal claims that “in the age of mega data and social media regulatory functions are only limited to ‘criminal acts of cybercrimes’ and FIA holds the mandate to investigate and prosecute cybercrimes”.

This completely ignores the abuse of Section 37 of Peca by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to censor entire platforms like TikTok twice in the past year, apart from record-breaking number of requests sent to social media companies for content takedown and user data, a large portion of which were complied with by companies. But the PMDA seems to want to further expand censorship powers over social media, a proposal which is neither permissible under the Constitution, nor practically possible, as the PMDA proposal itself states that “the regulatory access of government is increasingly getting marginalised due to rapidly advancing internet-based technologies”.

The chief justice of the Islamabad High Court has termed the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules, 2020, under Section 37 of Peca “prima facie ultra vires to Article 19” of the Constitution, and the government is currently reviewing them for the second time. Clearly, the attempts to regulate social media in the status quo are already excessive.

The state seems to have dropped any pretence of adhering to democratic and constitutional norms and procedures. The proposal — termed as an attempt to impose “media martial law” by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Pakistan Bar Association, and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan — is being introduced as an ordinance bypassing democratic processes of being tabled in parliament and debated upon on the floor of the house as well as in standing committees.

It is also telling that this draft sprung up all of a sudden in the public domain with the intent of passing it, whereas the Journalist Protection Bill was passed by the cabinet after two years of struggle by the human rights ministry and is being introduced in parliament. Clearly, attempts to control the press triumph over attempts to protect the press in Pakistan.

This comes in the background of journalist Asad Toor being brazenly attacked inside his home in the capital with the attackers least concerned about being caught on CCTV; Fareed Khan, a photographer being illegally detained by police for photographing the lockdown in Karachi; and a private television team similarly manhandled while filming violation of Covid-19-related SOPs. Not to forget the armed attack on journalist Absar Alam in Islamabad a month prior to these attacks.

Explainer: What is the govt's proposed media authority and why has it invited criticism?

It is also noteworthy to recall proposals similar to the PDMA’s by this government in the past. In 2018, the same information minister had floated the idea of a Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority that would merge the electronic, print and digital media regulators. Similarly, in early 2020, a proposal was floated to extend web-based channels and streaming platforms under the purview of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. Both proposals faced the same criticism as the PDMA: they have no place in our democracy where Article 19 and 19-A of the Constitution exist which guarantee press freedom and right to information, and were shelved; as this one should be, too.

As the onslaught on civil society organisations nears completion through stringent registration requirements and surveillance, the press seems to be the next target for the red-tape induced fatigue to be imposed through yearly ‘no-objection certificates, revocable licences, fines through tribunals, and cutting appeals by only allowing appeals to the Supreme Court

To form an authority to regulate films, electronic, print and digital media in Pakistan — private and public — altogether seems like one grand plan to make all media like the Pakistan Television, which the prime minister had promised would be independent but is anything but.

It is essential for our democracy that media and internet regulators be independent instead of being subjected to the whims of government officials and hidden pressures. Regulators must be separate as the proposal only seeks to make separate wings of them, and stop yearning for a ‘hybrid regulatory framework’ that is nothing but an ill-informed big brother style censor with powers of imposing fines, revoking licenses, and holding journalists’ livelihood hostage to state censorship.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

usama@bolobhi.org

Twitter:****@UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2021

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