A draconian authority

February 3, 2019

Government’s bid to regulate all media through one body seems unfair and is being widely condemned by media bodies, unions and senior journalists

A draconian authority

The country’s media organisations are bracing for harder protests as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) led government is seriously moving towards bringing a new, unified and centralised regulatory authority. The critics are calling it manipulation of the media and an attempt at curtailing its freedom.

In its January 24 meeting, the federal cabinet approved the proposed draft of a collective body called Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) that would converge all existing bodies and laws related to media regulation. The draft was prepared and approved without any prior consultation with media stakeholders and civil society groups -- a step which, according to government officials, would be taken later, before the passing of this proposed law.

The draft proposes to end self-regulation and impose state-regulated mechanisms in its place. It also suggests that print media should be issued annually renewable licenses on condition of following the government and state’s polices. Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has repeatedly defended this regulation saying it was the need of the hour and will help in making a broader regulatory framework that will also help in stopping misuse of social media.

A concept note and a circulated proposed draft of this converged regulatory move clearly reads: "A new regulatory framework may be designed to regulate media collectively in all its formats and that adequate institutional structure may be established with appropriate resource allocation," adding, "The authority shall be responsible for regulating local, foreign, electronic, print, digital and social media in Pakistan."

The concept paper says the rules will be transparent and user friendly. There will be guidelines for media including internet-based advertisements and revenue; a way to preserve code of media implemented by the Supreme Court of Pakistan; an issuing of guidelines for code of conduct and national security issues; suggested corporate patterns with competitive salary structure and benefits package; giving legal authority to impose sanctions if violation occurs as well as setting up a wing for forensic cyber audit. All current laws related to media regulation will be abolished.

There will be a legislation to give legal cover to PMRA to regulate the whole media. The proposed draft of the PMRA bill calls for making three wings within PMRA which include "Electronic Media Wing", "Telecom & Digital Media Wing", and "Mass Media Wing".

According to a government official, this would help in regulating media in a proper way and no one would be able to defame anyone. He said this regulation much needed and would merge all existing rules and acts related to Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

"It is not a useful exercise; in fact it is quite dangerous," senior journalist M Ziauddin says. "They want to make the new body not a regulator but a controller. There is no previous example of renewing licenses of media and linking them with following government or state policy. Also, every form of media has its own conditions, demands and needs of regulation. You cannot compare print media with social media and electronic media." He says, the stakeholders have not been consulted at all which indicates that this suggestion to control media is from the military establishment. "In developing countries they follow the model of self-regulation. Such proposed measures are not democratic but dictatorial."

There is no previous example of renewing licenses of media and linking them with following government or state policy. Also, every form of media has its own conditions, demands and needs of regulation. You cannot compare print media with social media and electronic media."

All media bodies, including All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE), Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), and other media and civil society groups have consensually criticised this move saying this would curb their freedom. "Formation of such an authority is an arbitrary and anti-media measure intended to curb the freedom of the press and to control the media through a highly centralised authority. This effort is not less than bringing back a bad law to strangulate the media -- Press and Publications Ordinance -- promulgated by the dictatorial regime of General Ayub Khan," APNS resolution deplored, adding the proposed authority was also in violation of the constitution of Pakistan which guarantees freedom of press.

The body aimed to vehemently resist such a move. The CPNE, turning down this merger of media regulatory bodies declared it an attempt to "deprive the media community of its fundamental rights." Moreover, the PFUJ called it a move to make press "subservient" to the government. It warned that it would not accept such draconian black laws. "Bringing print and electronic media, that is radio, TV, and digital media, under a single regulatory authority is completely illogical," the PFUJ President Afzal Butt states, adding, "Nowhere in the civilised world -- including developed and developing countries -- are regulatory bodies and regulatory rules of the print and electronic media the same."

Globally, in September 2018, regulators from around the world held a conference in London to discuss how to regulate social media. Reportedly, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have also hired moderators to review content. The United Kingdom government is in the process of creating laws to protect people from harm online. While the European Union is also working on some regulations to stop the sharing of content that promotes and supports terrorism.

Internationally, several jurisdictions have integrated their media and communications laws into a converged legislative framework but there is no concept of state regulation curbing media freedom in democratic and developed countries. There are also no examples of controlling social media this way.

In 2017, Nawaz Sharif regime also tried to introduce Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority (PPMRA) Ordinance 2017. A law was proposed to control media and impose restrictions. The proposed law suggested measures to suspend publication for 16 days, close offices, impose Rs one million fine and order imprisonment of up to six months for violating the law. There was also proposal to issue licenses to print media rather than declarations.

"These are moves to have absolute control over media through expanded regimentation and to shrink the space for freedom," columnist and human rights activist IA Rehman observes. "A similar attempt was made in 2017 but was blocked through protests, compelling the government to refrain."

"Apparently, through one authority, government wants full control over all forms of media," senior journalist Mazhar Abbas observes, while condemning the government move to approve it without discussing it with the stakeholders. "There is no harm in regulating media but the proposed draft points out that the government would also regulate digital media, smart phones and advertisement which is very unfair and exposes the bad intention of the government." "Such quiet moves certainly create doubts," he views.

He thinks in a country like Pakistan where governments are normally weak and exposed because of their bad governance, they are afraid of a watchdog. He says, "such a law without any dilution would not be easy to get through parliament and there would be resistance from outside too."

However, senior anchorperson Nasim Zehra says, "There has indeed been a lot of criticism of this new law. The real questions that arise after this new law  are around the workings of the different bodies being turned to make policy, oversee implementation of policy and the redressal mechanism for those with complaints against incumbent governments and others.   The first test will be of the individuals selected to be in the councils , similarly how is independence and of freedom expression safeguarded as guaranteed in Article 19 of the Constitution, how are licences issued, advertisements distributed etc."

"The first test will be of individuals selected to be in the councils. Similarly, we have to see how independence and freedom of expression are safeguarded as guaranteed in Article 19 of the Constitution, how are licences issued, advertisements distributed etc," she maintains.

A draconian authority