Unseemly campaign

Published September 6, 2021

THE PTI government’s claims of respecting press freedom have long been exposed as patently insincere. Its proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority is no less than a declaration of war against journalists which, if passed, will prove to be the death knell for an independent media. Now Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has taken this campaign against the media up a notch. In television interviews over the past few days, he singled out particular news organisations, including this paper — in which the president of Pakistan himself had his article published recently — as having an ‘agenda’ to project Pakistan in a negative light.

According to him, the right to freedom of speech is being abused to peddle disinformation, and the government “only has a problem with fake news and not with genuine news”. This is a disingenuous stance: while ‘fake news’ certainly exists, the PTI has also weaponised the term to try and discredit those sections of the media that believe in their duty to inform the public without fear or favour and hold the government and other institutions accountable. It is highly unseemly for a federal minister — of information, no less — to lead a partisan attack on the integrity of certain news organisations.

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

The PTI government’s secrecy about the proposed law to set up the PMDA is also in sync with its authoritarian mindset. On Thursday, Mr Chaudhry came under fire from members of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting who demanded to see the draft of the law under which the PMDA is proposed to be set up. Instead, the minister gave a verbal briefing on the subject in which he touched upon his usual talking points to justify the ‘need’ for such an authority. Journalists, who are among the principal stakeholders, have also been unable to obtain a copy.

However, if the two purported versions of the draft that have surfaced in the last few months are any indication, the government is determined to muzzle the media and grind it into an unquestioning uniformity through a draconian law. Curiously enough, this is the same government whose human rights ministry has drafted a media protection bill that even most journalists would consider a comprehensive effort to provide redressal for the threats, intimidation and violence many of them face in the course of their work. Are the information and human rights ministries working at odds with each other?

Combating anti-Pakistan ‘conspiracies’ should not mean stifling its media. Indeed, a vibrant press is the sign of a state confident in its ability to govern and stand up to attacks against it. Moreover, the government, if it bulldozes the PMDA legislation through despite the media’s protests, may want to consider the reaction from those sections of the global community that take press freedom very seriously. Is stamping out all dissent worth inviting international censure?

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2021

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