Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb on Monday announced withdrawal of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2023 following objections raised by certain stakeholders regarding specific provisions in the proposed legislation.
The bill — aimed at streamlining the procedures to register and monitor ratings of TV channels as well as elaborating on the definitions of disinformation and misinformation— was passed by the the National Assembly (NA) on August 3.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as well as journalists’ bodies had expressed concerns that the law could be misused and “may allow powerful groups or individuals to stonewall journalists seeking both sides of a story”.
Additionally, broadcasters had expressed concern over the government move and said that the powers to monitor the rating agencies should be given to advertisers.
During the briefing to the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting today, the information minister mentioned that the legislation had been formulated after careful consideration. emphasising that the government also respected the concerns expressed by certain groups regarding specific sections of the proposed legislation.
“We have never compromised on constitutional and democratic principles, nor can we ever do so,” the minister told the Senate committee.
She insisted that the government would never compromise on the constitutional right to freedom of media, expression, and civil liberties.
“We will always strive together with the media against coercion, authority, and tyranny.”
Aurangzeb stated that the government’s intention was to repeal the previous “black Pemra law,” and in pursuit of this goal, it engaged in consultations with media stakeholders to draft the new legislation.
Right from the outset, the government was determined to ensure that the bill would be passed only through the consensus of all parties involved, she told the committee.
Afzal Butt, the President of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), who also participated in the Senate body meeting, expressed his appreciation for the emergence of such legislation after many years. He highlighted that the legislation was designed with the aim of safeguarding the rights of journalists.
“The owners of media houses do not pay their workers on time and this bill will be able to support all such workers,” Butt said.
Shakeel Masood of Pakistan Broadcasting Association opined that the bill was “crucial” for the media industry and it should not be withdrawn.
All Pakistan Newspaper Society President Sarmad Ali said every section of the bill had been debated and “we support this legislation.”
The minister informed the committee that the Pemra Ordinance of 2002 was the “black law” from the Musharraf era, adding that the government wanted to repeal that law.
“We hold in high regard the opinions of all relevant stakeholders and parliamentary members concerning the bill,” she stated.
She pledged to actively contribute to advancing the legislation, regardless of whichever government comes to power next.
Later, speaking to journalists outside the Senate, Aurangzeb reaffirmed her party’s commitment to press freedom, emphasising that her party’s leadership also fought against censorship.
The minister shared that she was at the forefront of those opposing the establishment of the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) and recalled how she had been vocal in criticising the then government’s move to introduce it.
Highlighting her dedication to journalists’ well-being, she mentioned the initiation of health insurance for journalists, acknowledging the challenges they faced due to unpaid wages and salary delays.
She further stated her efforts to ensure the devolution of powers from the chairman of Pemra to relevant authorities.
In response to concerns about incorporating all opinions into the legislation, she acknowledged the constraints of time and expressed that the legislative process had only two days left before a new parliament with a fresh mandate would take over.
The contentious bill
As per the amendment bill, “disinformation” refers to verifiably false, misleading, manipulated, created, or fabricated information disseminated or shared with the intent to harm the reputation of or harass any person for political, personal, or financial interest or gains. This dissemination should occur without making an effort to present the other person’s point of view or providing proper coverage and space. However, it does not include “misinformation.”
As for misinformation, the bill states that “misinformation means verifiable false content or information that is unintentionally disseminated or shared”.
Major changes have also been made in the structure as well as operation of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra); e.g. the number of members in the authority was enhanced to 13 from 12, apart from its chairperson.
The chairperson alone will not have the power to suspend the broadcast of any channel, as under the amendment, the powers to stop the airing of any satellite electronic media can be delegated to the “chairman and two Pemra members”.
A longstanding demand of broadcasters and workers has also 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 licencee of the Pemra shall ensure timely payment of salaries not later than two months to electronic media employees working with it,” it says.
In case of non-compliance, the federal or relevant provincial governments will be intimated to stop the release of television or radio commercials to the violators till the payment of pending salaries.
The preamble of the Pemra law has also been amended to “ensure timely payment of salary to the electronic media employees working with the licensee of the Authority”.
The bill further says that during a regular programme, a continuous break for advertising shall not exceed five minutes and the duration between two such successive breaks shall not be less than 10 minutes.
The bill also authorises the Pemra to impose a fine of up to Rs1 million on a licensee who “contravenes any of the provisions of this ordinance or the rules or regulations of the code of conduct or terms and conditions of the licence” after giving them a reasonable opportunity to show cause.
Provided that in case of “severe violations”, the Pemra may impose a fine of up to Rs10m, it says.
The bill also barred civil courts from questioning the legality of Pemra’s decisions. It did add, however, that the high courts could be approached for appeal within 30 days of the authority’s decision or order.
It further says that the content of a television channel available on electronic media, including its logo and name, shall not vary and be altered, substituted or tempered on digital media or any other similar forum.