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Pakistan's proposed media development authority could further curb freedom of media

Journalists in London protest against the proposed PMDA. Screenshot via YouTube by Murtaza Ali Shah. Fair use.

Journalists in London protest against the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). Screenshot via YouTube by Murtaza Ali Shah. Fair use.

In May 2021, the government of Pakistan proposed the formation of a new media regulatory authority called the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). According to journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers, this would give the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) government more powers to restrict the independence of media and tighten control over journalists.

Pakistan has a number of different agencies that regulate broadcasters, print and digital media. Under the proposal, those bodies would be combined into one organization, ignoring the fact that each media format has unique dynamics and characteristics that many think should not be governed by one authority.

Questioning the need for a unifying regulatory authority

The Pakistani government's justification for the creation of the PMDA may be linked to claims of so-called fake news on social media. In a recent speech, Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed that fake news is degrading the country, but that the government is not against the free media. Pakistan's media advocates and experts have, however, argued that cybercrime and defamation laws are already available for matters like fake news and hate speech on social media and digital platforms.

Several journalists questioned the entire drafting process of the PMDA law, alleging that the government wants to keep it secret. Minister of Information and Broadcast, Fawad Chaudhary has said in recent statements that the owners of media houses oppose the PMDA because it includes a proposal for media courts that will deal with issues between workers and media houses and protect media workers’ rights. Chaudhary also said that the PMDA was his idea, rejecting reports that said that it was proposed after approval from the military establishment. Moreover, worker rights tribunals already exist.

Pakistan’s current broadcast media regulator, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has long been the government’s instrument to regulate the media, sometimes taking repressive approaches. PEMRA has shut down TV channels, terminated live interviews, and blocked cable operators.

According to human rights activists and journalists, PMDA will empower the Pakistan government to set up special tribunals to impose fines on code of conduct violations and publishing of so-called fake news. Activists suspect that such tribunals would be abused as a mechanism for repressing media houses and journalists.

Celebrated journalist Mazhar Abbas said the PDMA appeared to be aimed at sabotaging the Journalists Protection Bill.

The Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) issued a press release saying that the PMDA proposal was “aimed against the freedom of press and expression” and a step towards imposing state control over media operations.

On August 23, Human Rights Watch condemned the proposed PMDA law, saying the government should “stop trying to control reporters and instead start protecting media freedom,” and argued that media regulators must be independent of government controls.

The proposed PMDA will give government control over the appointment and removal of PMDA officials. The proposed board of eight members will include 50 percent government officials and 50 percent media-related stakeholders, though there are slots for only 4 stakeholders from the media out of a dozen or more existing stakeholders with a seat at the table, which would lead to partial representation, nepotism and the tendency to play favorites.

On September 7, 2021, the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting held a meeting at the Parliament House in Islamabad. The committee is chaired by Senator Faisal Javed, who is also a leader of the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. The committee announced that the PMDA bill would be rejected if the government is unable to convince them of its necessity.

Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry stated that the government's proposals on the PMDA will be amended or scrapped if they are not accepted.

Protest against PMDA

On September 13, 2021 the journalist fraternity, led by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), walked from the National Press Club to the Parliament House in Islamabad, where they staged a sit-in.

Journalist Mudassar Saeed tweets:

You tried before … still you could not silence our voices. – @asmashirazi
a bold response to the government's attempt to control media in the name of the Pakistan Media Development Authority.
#PMDA #FreePress #PFUJ

At the time the protest was being staged, parliamentary reporters were barred from sitting in the press gallery of parliament for the joint session in the second week of September that was addressed by the President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi.

Marriyum Aurangzeb, Information Secretary of opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), criticized this move and said that the government is using “draconian and autocratic measures” to deny journalists in Pakistan their the constitutional right to register peaceful protest.

Responding to the remarks of the opposition leaders, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari said that the draft has not yet been finalized. She said the PMDA bill, after it reaches its final form, will first be sent to the cabinet committee, and, by the appropriate processes, will be tabled in the National Assembly.

On September 15, 2021, the Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry met with representatives of the media and agreed to form a committee to address the reservations about the proposed PMDA bill.

However, on September 16, the PFUJ President Shahzada Zulfiqar and Secretary-General Nasir Zaidi rejected the proposed PMDA bill and are not ready to talk with the government. Media representatives of the joint action committee declared the proposed PMDA unacceptable.

As a reaction to journalists’ reservations and staged protests over the proposed PMDA bill, the government is expected to postpone tabling the bill, and some ministers are now recommending that the prime minister not rush the PMDA debate.

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