April 8, 2020

‘Media Tribunals’ spell trouble for journalism and free speech in Pakistan

We find the federal cabinet’s sudden decision to approve the special ‘media tribunals’ with an aim to provide ‘speedy justice’ in cases and complaints related to media and journalism to be extremely alarming.  

According to the Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, the media tribunals are conceived to expedite the hearings of complaints against journalists (including those from politicians and authorities) and dispense justice in 3 months or less. These special media tribunals appear to be fashioned after similar parallel courts established to prosecute cases pertaining to terrorism (anti-terror courts, ATC) and corruption (National Accountability Bureau, NAB) both of which are plagued by a plethora of legal, procedural, and political issues.

Journalists and civil society bodies, considering the poor track record of the federal government in upholding press freedoms, and exploitation of existing legislations to curb online and offline free speech, have expressed concerns on the decision. It is feared that these special media courts will become the latest weapon in the legal arsenal used against press freedoms.

There seems to be a deliberate vagueness surrounding the exact scope of media tribunals, but considering the recent political statements with an overemphasis on the ‘responsibility of media’ and ‘presenting a good image of politicians in power’, we strongly believe that the decision is aimed at discouraging unfavorable and critical reporting, and to facilitate persecution of journalists under slander, libel, and defamation, in the pretext of ‘fake news’ and ‘false news’.

The idea for these media tribunals first came to light in July 2019, when Ms. Awan holding a press conference in Karachi, said that she had ‘discussed’ media tribunals with Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA). Following the presser, the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Pakistan’s leading body of editors, outrightly rejected the proposal, and stated that “CPNE stands against any kind of discriminatory legislation and would oppose discriminatory media law at all forums”.

We at Digital Rights Monitor believe that these media tribunals could prove to be extremely harmful to press freedoms in Pakistan. They could be used as a tool to persecute, charge, fine, and even imprison journalists for defamation at the whim of political authorities. It would also create a new and unnecessary layer of content regulation in an already overregulated media-scape.

Considering the timing of this decision, we also believe that the government is unfairly using the argument and momentum against digital disinformation to curb critical media reporting of political corruption scandals. It was recently reported in the mainstream media that Prime Minister Imran Khan, during the cabinet meeting that approved the idea of media tribunals, expressed displeasure on the critical media reporting of alleged government corruption scandals, and was quoted as saying that “some media houses and journalists are peddling the agenda of others”.

Recently, Ms. Awan, addressing another official briefing, seemed to backtrack from the finality of the decision regarding the establishment of media tribunals and said that the government seeks to take all stakeholders on-board, a statement which was perhaps motivated by the political backlash.

Earlier this year, the honorable Cheif Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan addressing a gathering at the start of the new judicial year stated that “the voices being raised about the muzzling of print and electronic media, and suppression of (political) dissent is (also) disturbing. It must be appreciated by all concerned that a voice suppressed, or an opinion curbed, generates frustration, frustration gives rise to discontent, and increasing discontent poses a serious threat to the democratic system itself.”

Press in Pakistan has never been truly free, but in recent times, the muzzling of journalists has reached an unprecedented level. We fear that these media tribunals will further worsen the situation with regards to the free press, especially when there are various legal instruments that criminalise and regulate different aspects of journalistic speech as is, in the form of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the Defamation Act 2004, defamation as defined in Section 499 of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC),  Section 20 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), among others.

We strongly recommend that the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf government should re-think its policy of misusing its legislative mandate to enact further controls against free journalism as such actions stand to harm the very fabric of democracy itself.

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