Pakistan: Proposed super regulator could impose a ‘media martial law’

This statement was originally published on on 31 May 2021.

The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) is alarmed by and concerned about the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance (2021) proposed by the Government of Pakistan, that seeks to centralize all media regulatory structures in Pakistan and create a ‘converged’ regulatory authority. This proposed ordinance will have a devastating effect on free speech and press freedom in Pakistan and all efforts in this direction must cease immediately.

In a country where the media already functions within a restrictive environment, with a limited space for free expression, the proposed centralization of regulatory structures will lead to further control of the media and further shrink the space for media freedom. PPF believes this proposed ordinance will grant the authorities tools to further control the media narrative and undermine the media’s ability to provide free and independent coverage.

According to a concept paper on the proposed ordinance, the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) will be a “new statutory institution established to regulate films, electronic, print and digital media in Pakistan in the age of metadata, digital and social media and internet based content and advertisements”.

“The proposed institution may also appropriate all current regulatory functions with refinements for the sake of efficiency, transparency and effective regulatory oversight of media,” the document stated. Additionally, it stated that the PMDA will have a “strategic purpose of making media in Pakistan’s public interest”.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) have rejected the proposed ordinance stating that it “is nothing less than imposing media martial law”.

In a joint statement, they said it was “draconian in scope and devastating in its impact on the constitutional principles and guarantees for freedom of expression, media freedoms and the right to information as well as the profession of journalism”.

“It embodies the anti-media proclivities of an army of spokespersons the incumbent government has recruited,” said PFUJ President Shahzada Zulfiqar, PFUJ Secretary General Nasir Zaidi, HRCP Chairperson Hina Jilani, HRCP Secretary-General Harris Khalique and PBC Vice Chairman Khushdil Khan.

“This ordinance will further tighten the grip of the government on all forms of media that includes print, electronic social media, drama and films,” they said.

In their statement, they also condemned the establishment of media tribunals that would hand punishments of up to three year jail sentences and Rs25 million in fines (approx. 162,000 USD) on those who violate the proposed regulations.

PPF shares the sentiment of the PFUJ, HRCP and PBC and urges the government to shelve this proposed ordinance.

In a media landscape, where existing regulatory bodies such as the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) are already overactive and akin to policing media rather than setting broad guidelines, this proposed authority will set a dangerous new standard for media control in Pakistan. It will further shrink the space for free expression and undermine the ability of journalists to do their job. It is likely to create financial pressures and challenges for media houses.

At a moment where the government has presented a bill for the safety of journalists in the National Assembly, this proposed ordinance undermines the credibility of the federal government’s commitment to freedom of expression and the safety of the media.

The government must ensure that journalists’ rights to free expression are protected rather than undermined through such restrictive ordinances.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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