Saturday December 04, 2021

Civil society, trade unions, journalists to start movement against PMDA

August 26, 2021

KARACHI: Civil society members, journalists, trade unionists, political and human rights activists and academics vowed on Wednesday to start a collective movement against the formation of Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA).

They said the government wants to create PMDA as a regulatory body to control the print, broadcast and digital media in the country. Speaking at a seminar at his views, getting so frustrated that he is using old tactics perhaps on the behest of the ministry's bureaucracy?

The dilemma of our politicians since the early days of Pakistan had been their ambitions to rule in an authoritarian manner like the military dictators. Thus, they both targeted the two pillars of the state, judiciary and media, as both asked ‘questions’ in their own respective ways. This mindset has not changed with the change of faces.

Media laws by and large in this country had been made to suppress the media rather than to protect it. In the process both print and electronic media faced tough laws, either banned, suspended or put off air, mostly on the charges of being critical and showing dissent. Even today, some leading anchors are off air and their columns have also been stopped. The cases of disappearance, illegal detention and harassment had also increased.

Pakistan today is among the five most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and among the worst in case of impunity, and media employees or their families hardly get justice from courts in case of target killing or even for their rights.

The politicians when in power dislike ‘dissenting and critical voices’ and bring laws to suppress the media, harass journalists through different ways. When in opposition, they always joined the struggle for freedom of Press and supported the journalists’ body’s demands. Just go through history you would find that the media laws they demanded be abolished when in opposition, they themselves used them when in power.

Press and Publication Ordinance, 1960 and Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 are the classical examples. One aimed to control and regulate the Press and the other to check social media. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto when in opposition demanded the Press Ordinance be repealed and the National Press Trust be disbanded but retained both when in power. In the recent case of PECA, the then opposition, including PTI, opposed it and feared it would be used against the opponents. Now, they themselves are using it against dissent.

The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has come with a lot of promises, including ‘freedom of Press.’ In the last three years, it was quite contradictory to the claim. His views about the ministry of information, PTV and Radio Pakistan today are contradictory to the one when he was the opposition leader. Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) will be just an addition to the draconian media laws of the past. And believe me they are over 50, many of which are still intact and enforced. Why all the media stakeholders opposed this law and how desperate the Minister of Information, who otherwise is a very liberal and secular-minded person?

Firstly, if the government is really concerned about the menace of ‘fake news’, why do they want to abolish the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Besides, the Defamation Act, 2002 is also there and then Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. So, what is the need for a new law after abolishing all these laws through merger? They could be improved because if these could not be enforced what is the guarantee that PMDA would be effective.

Similarly, the federal information minister is very interested in giving relief to the media workers in regard to delay in their salaries, retrenchments and labour laws, which is a welcome sign. But, again there is no need for PMDA. The government just needs to enforce the existing labour laws.

The first step in this direction could be to amend the Newspapers Employees (Condition of Service) Act, 1973 with the Media Employees (Condition of Service) Act so that electronic media employees could also be covered. Secondly, Fawad Chaudhry said thousands of cases are pending with the tribunals. He is not all that wrong but then set up implementation tribunals in all the four provinces.

Thirdly, under the labour law an employee becomes permanent after completing 90 days. Government should enforce this in both government and private institutions. How can PMDA provide this relief?

The other area which is a matter of concern for both information minister and government is the ‘fake news.’ But, they want to plead their case through ‘fake’ or government-backed bodies by using the name of a respectable body like PFUJ. The best way to check and stop the menace of fake news in print, electronic or digital media is making defamation laws effective.

At present, Defamation Act, 2002 is in place which again could be improved and made more effective in a manner that cases of libel suit be decided in months and not in years. Here too there is no need for PMDA because successive governments could use it against their opponents and critical journalists like in the past.

Government wants to abolish the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) as Fawad Chaudhry claimed it has become a redundant body. But the fact remains that in the last three years even its chairman has not been appointed by the government. The PTI government has already made the body dysfunctional.

PEMRA, which deals with the regulations of electronic media, came into existence through an ordinance in the year 2002 during General Pervez Musharraf period with TV channels in the private sector was a step in right direction. But, contrary to what people like the then and now Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad and likes of Fawad Chaudhry, the PFUJ opposed ‘cross-media’ ownership saying that it would create media monopolies. In 2007, Musharraf banned TV channels and some leading anchors.

Now, how can PMDA assure improvement in the electronic media while abolishing PEMRA or by its merger? The answer again is to make PEMRA an effective body, free from government and relevant quarter’s control and pressures.

Lastly, the information minister and many others in government, opposition and even among the people have hundreds of complaints against the media, including those within the media who believe it is spreading and promoting things contrary to our cultural and religious values.

In 2008, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in consultation with the media stakeholders proposed an independent and powerful ‘Media Complaints Commission.’ Since then, I have personally tried to pursue successive governments and their ministers of information, from Sherry Rehman to Fawad Chaudhry. But again as I said earlier these politicians only support ‘freedom of Press’ when in opposition and not when in government. Yes, some good laws were also made like Article 19 and 19-A in the Constitution of Pakistan, which guarantee freedom of Press and access to information, Newspapers Employees (Condition of Service) Act, 1973 and the recently passed Journalist and Media Employees Protection Bill. But, unfortunately there are still nearly 50 media laws through which both media and journalists could be targeted.

The alternative to fake news is the ‘news’ based on facts. If the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is really committed to freedom of Press and independent voices of dissent, it should encourage and support the demand for freedom of Press and establishing institutions of professional editors.

The prime minister should personally take up this matter and invite media stakeholders for dialogue with an open mind and see which laws could be improved and what new laws could be made for the protection of journalists, their safety, job security and other concerns.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang