Revisiting media laws

Published April 21, 2022

WITH the new government setting about swiftly dismantling its predecessor’s information policy, the sword hanging over the media’s head seems a little less menacing.

On Tuesday, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb announced that the Pakistan Media Development Authority — which, had the PTI government had its way, would have been armed with draconian powers to control the media — was being disbanded “in whatever shape or form it was working”. No black law, she declared, would henceforth be proposed or enacted to stifle the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. Ms Aurangzeb further said that the Digital Media Wing set up by the PTI government to disseminate official information on social media platforms would also be shuttered.

The move was welcomed by many who accused the DMW of instigating vicious trolling of the opposition as well as journalists, bloggers — in short, anyone expressing views critical of the party.

Editorial: Draconian media law

The assault on the right to freedom of speech in this country during the PTI’s tenure was perhaps unprecedented for a civilian dispensation to engage in. But let there be no mistake — the PML-N has been no champion of free speech either.

In fact, the draft of a print media regulatory law that surfaced in 2017, during the party’s previous stint in power, was so similar to the PTI’s proposed PMDA law that it could have conceivably been authored by the same hand. It included measures such as publishing licences to be renewed annually, possibility of jail terms for journalists and publishers and raids on the offices of publications that were deemed to have violated the law in question. It was only an uproar in the media and civil society that forced the government to backtrack.

Editorial: Will draconian press law go ahead?

And how can one forget that the restrictive Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, is actually the PML-N’s brainchild? Or that its government, when the draft was formulated, sidelined stakeholders despite promising to hold meaningful discussions with them and ultimately bulldozed through a bill that is a vehicle for unabashed censorship? That law was then ‘improved’ upon by the PTI government through an ordinance, bringing Pakistan even closer to the most repressive countries on the planet.

Earlier this month, the Islamabad High Court reclaimed to some extent the people’s right to free speech stolen by successive governments. It struck down a part of Peca’s Section 20, thereby excluding reputational damage as grounds for a criminal defamation charge, and declared the entire amendment ordinance as unconstitutional. However, there are still several landmines strewn across Peca that are not conducive to a healthy exchange of views.

Ms Aurangzeb has given assurances that Peca will be revisited in consultation with stakeholders, and this is to be welcomed. In such an exercise, misinformation and disinformation must be clearly defined, for they are very different things, and there must only be reasonable restrictions on free speech.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2022

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