Consolidating censorship

Published August 30, 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.

AFTER a couple of months of silence, the government’s resolve to consolidate censorship seems to have strengthened. It has evidently not listened to feedback from a diverse range of stakeholders, all of whom have opposed the proposal for a Pakistan Media Development Authority — a euphemism for the Orwellian Big Brother.

As envisaged by the government, the PMDA will be a one-stop shop regulator for all media — print, broadcast, film, and digital — and headed by a government-appointed bureaucrat. The PMDA will also have tribunals to hear complaints against media organisations, decisions of which can only be appealed at the Supreme Court. The tribunals, headed by chairpersons of high court judge level, will have the power to impose fines of Rs25 million and hand down jail time of up to three years. The PMDA will grant licences to media organisations which will have to be renewed yearly; it will also have the power to seal offices of media houses.

The PMDA will repeal the Press Council Ordinance, 2002; the Press, Newspaper, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002; the Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) Act, 1973; the Pakistan Electronic Media Ordinance, 2002, as amended by Pemra Amendment Act, 2007; and the Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979.

The allegations of a media martial law are not an exaggeration.

It also seeks to assume the content regulation powers of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and regulate digital media as well as over-the-top (OTT) streaming services such as Netflix, etc as well as content creators on YouTube. This is problematic, because the internet is the only place where some independence of thought and ideas finds space, especially when television has become so restrictive in terms of what one can say.

Editorial: There is a deliberate and well-considered effort by the authorities to bring the media to heel and curtail space for criticism

Groups representing the media including the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, lawyers groups such as the Pakistan Bar Association, and civil society groups such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Joint Action Committee have all rejected the bill, and rightly labelled the PMDA as “media martial law”. The Digital Media Association has also strongly opposed the draft bill.

It is important that the government engages stakeholders, especially as the media forms the fourth pillar of the state in a democracy, holding the government and state machinery accountable and playing a critical oversight role where the legislature, executive, and judiciary are concerned. Without the support of media organisations, and with the intention of seeking to expand control over them, the allegations of a media martial law and comparisons to dictator Ayub Khan’s tactics are not an exaggeration.

In the past few years, the government has withheld advertising to media houses that have been critical of its policies and exerted pressure to get certain anchorpersons off air. State machinery has also been used to intimidate newspaper hawkers and cable operators from, respectively, distributing newspapers and broadcasting channels critical of government and state policies, and abused the cybercrime law to intimidate activists and independent-minded journalists. Some opposition members have been disallowed by Pemra (and by channels under pressure) from appearing on Pakistani talk shows, and several columnists barred from writing domestically, and labelled traitors when they write internationally. Killing and disappearances of journalists have also taken place with impunity, and Pakistan’s media freedom rankings have been sliding consistently, which is an international embarrassment for our democratic credentials.

Online censorship has also seen an uptick, with contradictory statements coming from a government dreaming of a digital Pakistan while at the same time banning TikTok four times when it is the fastest growing application in terms of usage and connects Pakistanis from all strata. Instead of giving this digital inclusion trend a boost and encouraging digital adoption, the government has opted for moralistic censorship.

In such an environment, such a proposal will put constitutional rights to freedom of speech and press freedom on the back-burner. But Pakistani media and civil society have resisted such moves successfully during dictatorships as well as democratic governments, and this will prove yet another challenge for the state to implement.

Previously, the same government had unsuccessfully tried to float similar proposals for a Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, and for bringing digital media and OTT applications under the purview of Pemra, both of which failed and were rejected by a large cross section of stakeholders. This proposal is facing similar opposition, but the information minister seems bent on pushing this draconian proposal ahead without consideration for stakeholder feedback.

Apart from being problematic for the reasons outlined here, it is also important for the government to consider the economic repercussions. Increasing media repression will not bode well for Pakistan’s GSP-Plus status; granted by the EU, this scheme of tariff concessions is contingent on respect for human rights.

Like the government, opposition parties also owe it to Pakistani citizens to move to protect the people’s interests that the government is trying to violate by promoting a propaganda model of media regulation. The opposition will suffer further if such a bill that consolidates censorship is passed. The government should learn from the mistakes of political parties that are suffering today due to having passed draconian laws when they were in power, and that are now being abused to persecute them. A case in point is the PML-N, which enacted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in 2016.

Governments mulling such consolidated censors need to realise that each medium requires specialised knowledge and dynamics, and it is only logical to have independent regulators that are formed through inclusive consultations with all affected stakeholders. Moreover, it is the stakeholders and experts that must have a say in their functioning rather than total control being delegated to state bureaucracy. Advancement in digital media does not mean that it be subjected to the same kind of censorship as traditional media in the past. It means that states now have to give up the fantasy of trying to control the people’s thoughts and opinions and their choices of information consumption, instead of seeking to manufacture their consent through a consolidated state censor.

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

usama@bolobhi.org

Twitter:****@UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2021

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