The Pakistani government is seeking broad new powers to control the media as part of its crackdown on freedom of expression. Journalists, human rights activists, and political leaders across that country have raised the alarm about proposed legislation that would bolster powers of the government to censor and restrict the media.
The government claims an ordinance setting up the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) would replace the “fractured” regulatory environment and “fragmented” media regulations currently in place. The proposed PMDA would bring all media in Pakistan – print, television, radio, films, and digital media – under one regulator.
Pakistan’s current broadcast media regulator, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has long been the enforcer of the government’s intensifying campaign of repression of the media. It has ordered television channels to shut down for airing criticism of the government, terminated live interviews of opposition leaders, and blocked cable operators from broadcasting networks that aired critical programs.
Journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers said the PMDA law would grant new unchecked powers to the government-controlled regulator by setting up special “media tribunals” that will have the power to impose steep fines for media organizations and journalists who violate its code of conduct or publish content it deems to be “fake news.” The proposed law would also increase government control by allowing government officials to be appointed to key positions.
The government has kept the final draft of the PMDA law and the entire drafting process secret, raising further apprehensions among the media and civil society groups. The government has undertaken no meaningful consultative process on the law.
The media regulatory framework in Pakistan does need to be amended – not to centralize more powers in government censors, but to create independent media regulators dedicated to protecting free expression. With journalists under relentless attack for doing their jobs, the Pakistan government needs to stop trying to control reporters and instead start protecting media freedom.