The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has expressed concern over a Pemra amendment bill, saying the definition of disinformation under it “strays into censorship territory”.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Amendment Act 2022 was introduced in the National Assembly by Information and Broadcasting Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb on Thursday and elaborates on disinformation.

It was unanimously approved by the NA’s Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting today, according to state broadcaster Radio Pakistan.

The bill says that “disinformation means verifiably false, misleading, manipulated, created or fabricated information which is disseminated or shared with the intention to cause harm to the reputation of or to harass any person for political, personal, or financial interest or gains without making an effort to get other person’s point of view or not giving it proper coverage and space, but does not include misinformation”.

According to the bill, “Disinfor­mation and misinformation has been added to the definitions in order to provide legal measures to provide challenges of false, misleading, manipulated, created or fabricated information”.

The HRCP said in a statement on Twitter today it was concerned that the legislation had assigned the Pemra “the role of disseminating what it terms ‘authentic news’ in a bid to curb disinformation”.

“While any responsible journalist is honour-bound to eschew false information intended to deliberately create harm, we are concerned that the given definition of ‘disinformation’ in this bill strays into censorship territory and may allow powerful groups or individuals to stonewall journalists seeking both sides of a story.

“This violates Article 19 of the Constitution protecting freedom of expression,” the statement read.

The HRCP also sought revision of the bill’s provisions pertaining to the payment of media workers’ salaries.

“While the bill takes an important step in protecting electronic media workers’ salaries — a longstanding demand f media trade unions and rights activists — it should be reviewed to ensure that media practitioners’ salaries are paid within 30 rather than 60 days, in keeping with labour laws,” it said.

Similar observations were made in a Dawn report today, which said the bill was generally lauded by the industry stakeholders, “but prima facie sets new definitions related to dissemination of information, thus making it hard to be accepted without a grain of salt”.

The bill

Under the bill, major changes have been proposed in the structure as well as operation of the Pemra, for example, the number of members in the authority has been enhanced to 13 from 12, apart from its chairperson.

However, a longstanding demand of broadcasters and workers has been accommodated to some extent, as non-voting honorary members — one each from the broadcasters and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) — will be in the authority. The preamble of the Pemra law has been amended to “ensure timely payment of salary to the electronic media employees working with the licensee of the Authority”.

Among the responsibilities of the regulator, its role now also includes dissemination of ‘authentic news’ instead of just ‘news’.

The chairperson alone will not have the powers to suspend the broadcast of any channel, as under the proposed amendment the powers to stop the airing of any satellite electronic media can be delegated to ‘chairman and two Pemra members’.

The new section inserted in the Pemra law is “20A-Obligation of licensee to pay electronic media employees’ salaries timely. The licensee of the Authority shall ensure timely payment of salaries not later than two months to the electronic media employees working with it”.

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