Monday December 06, 2021

The media is united

September 13, 2021

The government and its ministers, notably Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, have been on a mission to promote the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). They are doing this despite the fact that every credible media organisation, union, rights network, progressive association in the country – ranging from the PFUJ to the APNS to the CPNE to the AEMEND, the PBA, HRCP, Pakistan Bar Council, SCBA – has rejected this black law. Journalists have protested – and are protesting today as well. And, yet, the information minister has been insisting that the law has been supported by journalists. With respect, that is patently untrue. The media in Pakistan stands united against a law that is regressive, authoritarian and dangerous for media freedom in the country.

There are bad laws, very bad laws and draconian laws. The PMDA falls in the last category, the sort of step only authoritarian regimes make to keep the press muzzled. The PMDA in fact is a throwback to the kind of media restrictions Pakistan has seen during its worst dictatorships – proposing to merge the host of media laws in force in the country, and bringing print, television, radio, films, social media and digital platforms under one ‘regulatory’ body. Apart from the glaringly obvious fact that one body can’t possibly deal with such differing mediums, the proposed regulator will also be conveniently under state control. The Ministry of Information has also been cloaking the PMDA under a faux-concern for journalists’ rights and ‘fake news’. Linking the PMDA to journalists’ salaries and job security is a cynical attempt to set a dangerous precedent of the PMDA-proposed ‘media tribunals’ which would have the power to hand down punishments of up to three years in jail and millions in fines. There also has to be a diversity of opinion within the media and safeguards as to fair play regarding authentic news is essentially carried out by the media itself. So, even when ‘fake’ news appears in the media or on social media, either the media itself corrects this or there is recourse to the defamation laws already in place, which can always be further strengthened. The balance should not be tilted by government-imposed authorities.

Attempts to control the media always lead to more problems than they solve. The PMDA and the Media Complaints Commission are essentially an attempt to silence what little Pakistan’s journalism has left in terms of the ability to speak out and represent all the people of the country, including dissenting voices. Every person who has worked in journalism, except perhaps the most reactionary journalists, would agree with this view. The PTI government should remember the extremely negative impact attempts to stifle media have had in the past and how they have adversely affected the professionalism of the media, and the right of people to access information as enshrined within the constitution. The government would also do well to heed the words of the prime minister himself – before coming into power – regarding the necessity to have a press that is free to speak truth to power. For a government that is concerned – and rightly so – about the ‘image’ of the country in global corridors, it is strange that it has not thought of the consequences of such a controversial law, given that Pakistan already stands low in press freedom rankings.

Is there room for improvement in Pakistani media? Yes, as there is around the world. Should there be a state-controlled punitive body to ‘regulate’ all of the media, without input or participation from any of the stakeholders and by running roughshod over journalists’ concerns? Absolutely not. Regulation must never cross over into censorship or curbing dissent. Instead of continuously obfuscating the issue and gaslighting the valid concerns raised by a whole spectrum of journalists in the country, the Ministry of Information must review this proposed media martial law. Perhaps Prime Minister Imran Khan could prevail upon his own government and remember his own words regarding media freedom and the role of ‘regulation’.