Monday February 06, 2023

Controlling the media

By Editorial Board
June 03, 2021

Pakistan has very often been right at the edge of – and some would argue even smack in the middle of – an authoritarian information order. Over the years, varying governments have tried varying repression tactics to stem whatever little freedom journalism has managed to carve out for itself in the country. Now, though, the chokehold on journalists may just become a legally sanctioned reality. A read-through of the proposed draft of the Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance, which has been doing the rounds on social media, shows a state insistent on controlling the entirety of the media industry – no matter principles of fairness or right to know or freedom of expression. The proposed ordinance – not a bill that would have to go through parliament – leaves little to imagination as far as the intentions of the drafters is concerned. There can be no doubt as to what it would mean for the press and electronic TV channels in the country, as well as for the digital media which has also to come under the control of this proposed draconian law.

The proposed law essentially sets up a new body called the Pakistan Media Development Authority. This ‘Authority’ is to take the place of most other media regulation by repealing and taking the place of laws such as: 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 the Pemra Amendment Act 2007; and the Motion Pictures Ordinance 1979. Other details aside, what is most disturbing is the extent of its authority. For example, it will have the right to look into any complaints made about programming by any channel or content published by any print entity, as well as movies and the digital media – and other unclear clauses – and take action if the content is deemed to be a ‘violation’ of what the Authority lays down. And what the Authority lays down is a set of vague prohibitions, which it can then act on without even affording the offending entity an ‘opportunity of hearing’. A yearly NOC, which is to be issued in addition to new licences, which will also be required to run YouTube or other media channels, adds to the anxiety that will no doubt follow anyone running any kind of media entity. Further, the fact that the government would think it acceptable to formulate a ‘code of conduct’ and then add punishment to any perceived ‘violation’ of such code is an uncomfortable and frightening reminder of previous ‘black laws’ the country had to suffer.

It appears that what our government wants is a silent state. If this draconian ordinance gets approved as is – and without major changes, not minor tweaks – no journalist or media professional, or even a common person uploading something on social media, will be far from an iron clutch ready to grasp the neck of the dissenter. And let us not forget that where we stand today a dissenter can be anyone who raises a critical voice from any platform. The desire to impose a uniform narrative has already badly damaged our educational system, and now the media seems to be in the production line. Erosion of the right to freedom of expression is a sure sign of decline of all constitutional principles and mounts to violating of democratic norms. The powerful thrive on excessive use of authority, and the creation of yet another Authority to curb freedom of expression smacks of a lack of concern on how Pakistan is going to evolve as a civilized nation. The relationship between the state and the media in Pakistan has always been a tense one, and Pakistan has a long and proud history of journalists’ struggle for freedom of the press and the right to know, in the face of some of the most repressive conditions. At a time when the media stands as one of the most important and necessary requisites for democracy, justice and an open society, it is disappointing to see such an openly regressive attempt to curb free speech and the right to know. Running roughshod over an institution indispensable to a functioning democracy will only hurt the country and strengthen the largely-held view that this is not a government willing to tolerate any kind of freedom of thought or speech or expression.