Pakistan’s political Opposition, student unions, and civil society groups on Monday came out on the streets of Islamabad to extend support to and express solidarity with protesting journalists outside Parliament House, throwing their combined weight behind media personnel standing against the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Bill.
The PMDA, reports Dawn, has been conceived by the government as a regulatory body that would “cater to the professional and business requirements of all forms of media and their users”, and would replace the current “fractured” regulatory environment and “fragmented” media regulation by multiple bodies. In essence, this means the PMDA will effectively be the sole arbiter and regulator responsible for overseeing print, broadcast and digital media in Pakistan.
Additionally, once this media authority is established, all previous laws pertaining to media regulation and control will be abolished giving statutory cover to the PMDA and its functioning. Journalists in Pakistan, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to report from, see the legislation as a blatant attempt to curtail the independence of the media.
Of special concern is the sweeping requirement for government licensing of journalistic activity and the injunction against “bringing into ridicule the head of state, or members of armed forces, or judicial or legislative organs of the state”. The problem with the Bill is not only that it includes several proposals antithetical to democratic norms of Press freedom but that while it proposes to regulate digital and social media more rigorously, it does not address how this would be achieved.
The implications of the proposed legislation for the already crumbling democratic institutions in Pakistan, where a military-tolerated democracy has been in vogue for decades now, are worrying. For example, the PMDA Bill makes it mandatory for all media outlets ~ print, electronic, and digital ~ to obtain an annual government licence to stay operational, and non-adherence to a yet-to-be announced media ‘code of conduct’ could result in severe consequences including three to five years’ imprisonment and hefty fines.
The PMDA would also be empowered to suspend the functioning of any media outlet, summon the producer of content it finds objectionable, and take suo motu action to penalise any media platform without giving it the right to a hearing.
The formation of media complaint councils that would hear public complaints against the media is also on the anvil. But here too the concentration of power is stark: Decisions by these councils/ PMDA can only be challenged before a tribunal that oversees issues related to professional problems of media personnel, and the only forum to challenge the decision of the tribunal would be the Supreme Court.
The government claims the PMDA “aims to empower journalists, allowing them to file complaints against media managements against arbitrary salary cuts and/or non-payment of dues”. But such claims need to be taken with a bagful of salt given that over the past few years Pakistan’s rank in the global Press freedom index has constantly declined owing to growing cases of journalists being abducted.