Media rules could bring back the bad old days in Pakistan

On a day when Western media focused on the ramifications of the official visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Islamabad, I got a heads-up email message from Mazhar Abbas in Islamabad this morning. 

He is worried about proposed legislation that passed Thursday through the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information—which is headed by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. The committee has recommended that a new law be passed that would set restrictions on media, including a ban on live coverage of events the government doesn’t want to see on the air. Mazhar says the legislation would allow for sentences of up to three years in jail and 10 million rupee fines (about US$120,000). He worries that “it is almost the revival” of an ordinance amended by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulations Authority that was imposed by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf on November 3, 2007. That’s the day Musharraf declared a state of emergency amid mounting political criticism that eventually drove him from office.

Here are some of the points Mazhar highlighted in the proposed legislation:

No channel will be allowed to broadcast footage of a suicide bomber, bodies of victims of terrorism, or any criticism of the president, or defame the prime minister or the army. Anchors will not say anything that can create confusion or hatred.

No anchorperson, moderator, or host will propagate anything against the ideology of Pakistan or sovereignty or security of the country.

They will not be allowed to say anything against the judiciary or do a program that defames or ridicules the head of the state, armed forces or the executive, legislative, or judicial bodies.

What has Mazhar worried is that the law passed through the committee unanimously—all the parliamentary political parties who have representation in the committee backed the recommendations.

The Zardari government has largely backed away from the more egregious attempts of the Musharraf government to silence the media, but with the country increasingly on a war footing—with a soaring number of terrorist attacks and two large internal military operations launched within a few months of each other this year—Pakistan is getting politically shakier and the media is at greater risk of censorship. Reporters embedded with the military complain that their coverage has been heavily censored, and very few, if any, have been allowed to embed with combat units during the most recent push into South Wazirstan. 

“If they make this into a law, it’s nothing but a complete ban,” Mazhar said in his e-mail message.

I blogged about the realities for Pakistani journalists covering the military’s first push into Malakand and the Swat Valley a few weeks ago. 

Mazhar, who hosts a news show on Ary News stepped down as the secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists last year after he served the limit of two terms in the job. In 2007 CPJ gave him one of our International Press Freedom Awards. He was just in the U.S. for two weeks to receive an award for his work as a journalist and a press freedom advocate by the Missouri School of Journalism.