April 20, 2022 – Newly appointed Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb announced on Tuesday that the government has disbanded the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA), adding that it would also review the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) for any gaps that misconstrue freedom of speech as guaranteed in the Constitution.
“An attempt was being made through a black law [PMDA] to suppress an already restricted media,” said the PML-N leader during a press conference. “But today I announce that the PMDA has been disbanded, whatever shape or form it was working in.”
She added that no “black law” that restricts the constitutional right to free speech would be enacted or worked upon.
“We will discuss media’s problems, including fake news, with the joint action committee comprising all stakeholders and media organisations for a consultative solution that is workable and acceptable to all,” said Aurangzeb. “No regulatory authority would be formed other than the [already functioning] Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA).”
She went on to add that Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar would review the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, also known as PECA (brought in by the PML-N government itself), with all the stakeholders. Parts of the cybercrime act that misconstrue freedom of speech and which allowed the former PTI government to introduce the PECA Amendment Ordinance 2022 that was struck down by Islamabad High Court, would also be examined.
“We saw how the PECA ordinance was used against journalist Mohsin Baig that an FIR was registered against him overnight and his ribs were broken,” she said. “We will try to fill those gaps and review them with the stakeholders.”
The amended PECA ordinance was declared “unconstitutional” by the Islamabad High Court earlier this month.
The controversial PMDA was proposed by the PTI government last year and aimed to replace all other regulatory laws for print, electronic and digital media. Its formation was strongly resisted by journalists and free speech defenders, who called it an attempt to muzzle the press.
In response to a question regarding the continuing online campaigns targeting state institutions, Aurangzeb said that the government has already initiated action against them.
“Those bot tweets don’t come under freedom of speech,” she said. “They are being generated through softwares. There is zero tolerance for these campaigns against state institutions.”
The minister added that the Digital Media Wing established at the Information Ministry by the former government was used to abuse, threaten, and mistreat the opposition members.
“I have abolished the Digital Media Wing,” said Aurangzeb. “There is a cyber wing already at the ministry which functions in accordance with federal policies.”
Soon as the current government took charge, the website of the Digital Media Wing also became inaccessible, along with various other accounts controlled by the previous PTI government that focused on its social media presence since the beginning of its tenure.
PECA has been heavily criticised by the media and civil society for its ability to muzzle free speech in the country, and in light of how the law has been used to stifle journalistic freedoms in the country since it was passed in 2016. Rights activists and journalists have maintained that various sections of the law are “draconian”, and must be reviewed and struck down. This includes section 20 of the law that criminalises online defamation, and has been used against journalists and victims of gender-based violence in the country as a silencing tool. The Islamabad High Court had recently declared part of this section unconstitutional, along with the PECA Amendment Ordinance.