A Pakistani man watches a broadcast by Prime Minister Imran Khan on a smartphone in August 2018. Pakistani regulators are moving to regulate internet videos in measures that journalists fear will result in censorship or penalties. (AFP/Rizwan Tabassum)
A Pakistani man watches a broadcast by Prime Minister Imran Khan on a smartphone in August 2018. Pakistani regulators are moving to regulate internet videos in measures that journalists fear will result in censorship or penalties. (AFP/Rizwan Tabassum)

Pakistan broadcast regulator proposes sweeping control of internet news programs

Munizae Jahangir knew she’d be prevented from putting Mohsin Dawar on her nightly “Spotlight” talk show on Aaj TV, an Urdu-language Pakistani station. Dawar, an elected member of the national assembly, is a leading figure of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which aims to boost the rights of the Pashtun people clustered in Pakistan’s western provinces, and has strongly criticized the military.

Authorities have instructed Aaj and other broadcasters not to invite PTM leaders on the air, Jahangir told CPJ this week. But when Dawar popped into the news following his late January arrest for joining a protest in Islamabad, Jahangir found another way to get his voice out after he was released. She interviewed him for the non-profit internet broadcast platform Voicepk.net.

Jahangir is part of a trend. The internet increasingly provides a home for news that’s censored on mainstream TV, and for broadcast journalists whose reporting or analysis has caused them to lose their jobs. And the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is poised to stop it. On January 8, PEMRA issued draft regulations that would apply existing rules for broadcast and cable TV news and entertainment programming to the budding area of internet video transmissions.

“The main intent is to silence the critical voices that are using internet TV to get their views across considering that they have already been censored from TV broadcasts,” Usama Khilji, director of the Pakistani digital rights group Bolo Bhi, told CPJ.

“They believe they have a war to fight on the internet, and we are the enemy,” Jahangir said.

A statement seen by CPJ that was circulated to Dawn and other local newspapers by Muhammad Tahir, PEMRA general manager for media and public relations, pushed back hard against criticisms of the proposed regulations, calling them part of a “smear campaign.” He denied that PEMRA intended to “curtail the freedom of speech” or to “gag voices.” Instead, he said, the regulations aimed at providing a “level playing field” for broadcast and internet TV programming. PEMRA did not respond to an email request from CPJ for comment or an interview about the proposal.

In the crosshairs are journalists like Najam Sethi, a prominent, often outspoken talk show personality forced off the air last year after reporting on the prime minister’s marital life, apparently under pressure from unidentified authorities, CPJ reported at the time. By early 2020, Sethi had 166,000 subscribers on his own YouTube channel, Najam Sethi Official, and told CPJ he gets hundreds of thousands of additional views through Dot Media Republic, which distributes and promotes videos on social media. (The “Najam Sethi Show” returned to Pakistani TV Channel 24 HD this week, the broadcaster said on Twitter on February 1.)

Another, Matiullah Jan, told CPJ that his broadcast career turned south after a military spokesman publicly displayed his name and photo on a list of journalists who were accused of distributing anti-state propaganda. He turned to YouTube, where his channel Matiullah Jan TV has garnered 53,000 followers. He earns a few hundred dollars a month from advertising, he said, enough to defray equipment and other costs with a little left over. “As a journalist, you don’t just do it for the money,” he said.

The regulations, if adopted, would impose a high entry barrier in the form of licensing requirements for all TV-like internet transmissions that earn revenue from advertising or subscription fees. (As a non-profit operation, Voicepk.net might escape the rules.) In order to obtain a license, the regulations specify that journalists would first have to form a corporation with a minimum capital of 3 million rupees (US$19,421) while complying with a raft of accounting, technical, and documentation requirements. Once that hurdle was crossed, news channels would face an additional license fee of 10 million rupees (nearly US$65,000), and annual fees amounting to 20 percent of that amount plus 2 percent of gross revenue, with no guarantee the license would be approved. Fees for entertainment channel licensees are half that amount, convincing several people CPJ talked to that that the real aim is to squelch news broadcasts.

Then comes the censorship. The regulations are remarkably frank about bringing online broadcasters in line with other PEMRA licensees that “have in-house delaying mechanism and editorial control to filter out content which is not in compliance with the code of conduct.” CPJ objected to the sweeping nature of that code when it was reissued in 2015; it prohibits airing anything against “Islamic values,” the “ideology of Pakistan,” or the nation’s founders, among other potential offenses. The red lines are sometimes hard to identify in advance, but can include criticism of the military or the judiciary, journalists have told CPJ.

“It’s very obvious for people to see on the TV, watching a show,” Khilji said of the code. “When they say something that crosses the red line, you will see mouths moving without saying anything, or the show will just go off the air.” He worries that PEMRA will insist on introducing censorship online, even if the licensing requirements are weakened or jettisoned.

Non-compliant operators could face suspension orders or see their websites or online channels blocked by the Pakistan Telecom Authority under the draft regulations. While it’s not clear how this would be enforced for broadcasts hosted on platforms like YouTube, PEMRA separately has authority to fine licensees and has imposed significant financial penalties on broadcast channels in the past, CPJ has found.

The proposal has provoked strong pushback. Two separate statements put out by Media Matters for Democracy, which promotes press freedom, and Bolo Bhi with several other groups, have gained the endorsement of a wide range of civil society groups and journalists, and make similar points. First among them is that PEMRA’s authority is limited to traditional broadcast TV, leaving it without the legal basis for regulating online behavior. They argue that any regulation of the internet would need to go through a legislative process.

“The entire regulation is unconstitutional,” said Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, which promotes internet safety and helped draw up the statement with Bolo Bhi and others, in a message to CPJ.

The statements also share a broader concern, that the regulations would put a stranglehold on innovation and the internet economy, including emerging digital journalism. The statement spearheaded by Media Matters for Democracy called on authorities to step back from the “ad-hoc, ill-advised, under-researched and non-nuanced policy frameworks that stand to permanently shape the emerging digital media market in Pakistan.”

“Already the brain drain in Pakistan is so high,” Khilji said. “This will just add to this exodus.”

In the face of criticism, the government of Pakistan has recently let languish other initiatives to control the media, including proposals to establish specialized media courts, and to bring all media under a single regulatory authority.

“Considering that there has been a lot of pushback against it,” Khilji said of the proposal, “we are hoping they will not go through with it.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The text has been modified in paragraphs 13 and 14 to clarify that multiple organisations helped to create the statement on the Bolo Bhi website.]