Worsening Media Regulatory Environment In Pakistan  

Muhammad Aftab Alam

Since April 19, 2014 – when Hamid Mir was attacked in Karachi – the overall state of media regulatory environment and media legal space in Pakistan has deteriorated in the intervening year. During this period, media has been subjected to various state and non-state actions and intimidations.

The state machinery has targeted media through selective enforcement of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and other criminal laws against media houses, journalists and anchors. Suspension of licenses of Geo TV and ARY TV along with blasphemy cases against their CEOs/current affairs anchors is example of selected and subjective enforcement of laws against certain media houses. PEMRA’s order to BOL TV to stop its test transmission and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP)s’ gaging of entire print media are the most recent incidents of repressive regulatory actions against media and freedom of expression in the country. Similarly, the non-state actors including political parties – Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) versus Geo TV – also targeted the media during this period.

Therefore, this period can be termed as one of the most violent times for media since the airwaves were opened for private ownership in 2002.

Terrorism and its impact on media freedoms

The attack on Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014 was another event that brought a discernible change in government policy towards media. The National Action Plan (NAP), which emerged after this incident to counter terrorism and extremism in the country, contains specific guideline for print, electronic and online media.

According to the NAP, action will be taken “against literature, newspapers and magazines that are spreading hate, [ideas of] beheading people, sectarianism, extremism and intolerance.” It also states, “There will be a complete ban on airing the views of terrorists and terrorist organizations in the print and electronic media.” The NAP also mentions “immediate steps are being taken to stop the spread of terrorism on the Internet and social media.”

The government assigned tasks to various committees to translate NAP into legislative and administrative actions. One of the committees (National Assembly Standing Committee on Information, Broadcast and National Heritage) held its meetings on December 24 and 30, 2014. The Committee recommended strict adherence of existing media related laws by media houses and journalists. It also recommended amended in the Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance, 2002 and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Rules, 2009 in order to make them more stringent and restricted.

Furthermore, the committee issued guidelines for media on coverage of incidents and issues of terrorism and militancy in the country. The committee made strong recommendations on monitoring and surveillance of social media. In Jan 2015, as a follow-up of the committee meetings, the government prepared a bill to amend the PEMRA law and expedite the process of finalizing draft bill on cybercrimes.

The proposed PEMRA Amendment Bill, 2015 requires all Pakistani TV channels to shift their satellite uplinks to the national satellite system. According to the proposed Bill, PEMRA chairman will be authorized to direct satellite operators and distribution service operators to take off air any channel. Similarly, TV channels will not be allowed to broadcast anything, which is “designed to create conflict or misunderstanding between various state-institutions.” The Bill also suggests enhancing penalty for contravention of the provision of the PEMRA laws. It proposed imprisonment up to five years and fine up to Rs25 million for certain kinds of violations.

Squeezing the online, cyber and digital spaces

Furthermore, the government also expedited the process of enacting a law to govern the cyberspace and drafted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, 2015. However, the civil society rejected the bill altogether and termed it against the fundamental right of people. After a strong reaction of the civil society groups, the government formed a committee to review the Bill and incorporate comments from the civil society. The revised Bill, which appeared in the first week of April 2015, in the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology. The Bill was again strongly criticized by the civil society and termed as “tough on individual rights and soft on crime.” Upon raising voices by the stakeholders, the Committee considered to revisit the Bill. Gladly, after hectic campaigning, the Standing Committee has formed a subcommittee to engage with the stakeholders in this regard.

YouTube remained inaccessible legally. However, the Islamabad High Court through an interim order declared the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Website (IMCEW) – a Committee to decide about blocking online content in Pakistan. The Committee consisted of Secretary of IT, nominee of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, nominee of Ministry of Interior, nominee of Cabinet Division, telecom expert from Ministry of IT, and nominee of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The Committee was mandated to evaluate the websites and direct Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block the content. Responding to this decision, the government disbanded the Committee. However, the Prime Minister through an executive order authorized the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA), which was previously mere an agency to implement the decision of the IMCEW, to evaluate and block access of ‘undesired’ websites.

Setbacks to media development

In recent months the government is also tightening the noose around the development sector, including the media development sector, through introducing regulations for disbursement of foreign funding through NGOs, both foreign and local. All the foreign NGOs are now required to seek permission from the finance ministry before operating in the country.

In addition to the existing registration laws, the government is working on law to further regulate local NGOs in the guise of NAP. In 2015 alone the Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) has cancelled licenses of over 100 NGOs and issued show-cause notices to over 130 organizations registered as not-for profit organizations. The situation is becoming critical for organizations, which are implementing foreign funded programs, including media development.

About the Author: Muhammad Aftab Alam is a media legal expert based in Islamabad. He tweets @aftabalam_77

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