Pakistani journalists protest layoffs outside a press club in Karachi on December 17, 2018. Pakistan's military and security agencies exert pressure on local media, while the government slashes its advertising budget, squeezing a key source of revenue for private newspapers and TV stations. (AP/Fareed Khan)
Pakistani journalists protest layoffs outside a press club in Karachi on December 17, 2018. Pakistan's military and security agencies exert pressure on local media, while the government slashes its advertising budget, squeezing a key source of revenue for private newspapers and TV stations. (AP/Fareed Khan)

Proposed media regulator provokes strong criticism in Pakistan

Pakistani journalists are a fractious lot. The unions have split into competing factions. TV networks snap at each other on air. So it takes something really threatening to prompt journalists to come to a common point of view. That’s happened as the government’s latest plan to create a new media regulatory body has provoked a virtually unanimous response from journalist unions, publishers and editors, lawyers groups, and press freedom advocates that boils down to something very simple: Don’t! A statement by leaders of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) dubbed the proposal the “most regressive measure against the media.”

The proposal to combine–and expand–existing regulatory authority under the umbrella of a new Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, or PRMA, is the brainchild of Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, who was appointed following the electoral victory in July of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his PTI party. Chaudhry is a lawyer by training, but has been in and out of politics, servicing different parties, and has also worked as a TV anchor.

Critics argue that the proposed PMRA would usher in an era of heightened government control and censorship. With the media already suffering from a withering degree of intimidation from security forces, as documented by CPJ, and a business environment that has forced mass layoffs, in part because of government cutbacks in advertising, media groups are highly suspicious of government intentions.

In several conversations with CPJ, Chaudhry described his proposal as the most natural evolution of the government’s role in the wake of the digital transformation of the news business. He said it’s aimed at preserving what he describes as the freest media sector in the Muslim world. “We are not bringing in something new,” he told CPJ in a telephone interview. “We are just converging existing bodies to bring more efficiency to the regulator.”

Under the proposal, a new regulator would oversee separate divisions for electronic media (TV and radio broadcasts and cable), digital media, and print. Existing regulators, including the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), would become defunct. The new body would also supersede self-regulatory panels such as APNS. The regulator would have powers to censure, fine, or withhold licenses from media operations. The aim, according to an early draft of the bill, is to broaden choice and optimize the free flow of information. A concept paper from the government says it aims to establish Pakistan as a “major global center and hub for multimedia information and content services”– with no mention of the traditional watchdog role of media in a democratic society.

Opposition has come from many directions.

For starters, the proposal does in fact introduce regulation where none existed. For example, printed newspapers in Pakistan are hardly regulated. New titles must register at the province to obtain a license, which is granted as a matter of course so long as no one else has claimed the title, Zaffar Abbas, editor of Dawn, told CPJ in an interview. Under the PMRA proposal, however, newspapers would have to renew licenses annually, a requirement that promises to increase pressures for self-censorship to avoid offensive articles that could jeopardize the license. “They have absolutely no idea that newspapers do not require a regulatory body and it’s a dangerous trend,” said Abbas, pointing out that regulations under past dictatorships were abolished after a long struggle by journalists. “First everything will be under one regulatory body. Tomorrow even if this government doesn’t have this kind of intention, all the bureaucrats, they will start issuing notices, notices to internet users, people’s violations of code of ethics, laws, etc.”

Chaudhry dismissed this concern, arguing that print is a dying industry as newspapers move online, meaning that all would be subject to a different means of regulation anyway. “My intention is not to squeeze the media,” Chaudhry said. “My intention is to come up with a transparent method of regulation.”

Transparent or not, existing regulatory structures for electronic media can be extremely heavy handed. For example, PEMRA bans criticism of the judiciary, has imposed a sweeping code of conduct, and has suspended broadcast rights over coverage. At the same time, PEMRA last year proved ineffective when it ordered cable companies to restore news programs they had dropped at the apparent behest of more powerful forces.

Also worrisome to many is the structure of the new regulator, which, in the early draft, calls for the PMRA governing body to be appointed by the government. Chaudhry conceded that this is a potentially valid concern and told CPJ he’s considering having leadership selected by the media industry, essentially making PMRA a self-regulatory body.

That, of course, begs the question of why it’s needed at all. Abbas, for example, points out that APNS already has a self-regulatory function and a complaints procedure, to which Dawn responds when complaints about its coverage arise.

Underlying deep apprehension about the government intentions are the bitter long- and short-term memories of pressure on the media, from killings and assaults on journalists to, more recently, behind-the-scenes pressure put on publishers and editors, which were the subject of CPJ’s special report last year. Sadaf Khan, co-founder and program director of the Islamabad-based nonprofit media training and advocacy organization Media Matters for Democracy, sees PMRA as an effort to introduce legal measures in place of extra-legal methods to control the media. “I feel this is an effort to ensure that nobody can openly go against the national narrative that is being built by the state itself,” she told CPJ. “They do have some means [today], but it’s the difference between having a legal versus non-legal mechanism.” Action by the state to control the media, Khan says “was branded as censorship, but once a law is there it is no longer censorship. It’s the government upholding the law.”

In that sense, Khan is suggesting that, as Chaudhry put it, the PMRA proposal may well be aimed at greater transparency in what has been an extremely murky process of media manipulation by the state. Of course, having a formal regulatory structure also would not guarantee the end of threats and violence that have characterized the past. Chaudhry tells CPJ, “Most people have not understood the concept,” and admits that most people see a hidden agenda. On that point, he’s certainly right.