Proposal About New Regulator Sets Alarm Bells Ringing for Pakistani Media

  • Leaked draft ordinance shows plans for formation of “Pakistan Media Development Authority” as new converged media regulator
  • PFUJ, PBC, HRCP reject the proposal
  • Ministry of information calls for consultation

May 31, 2021, Islamabad — A document believed to be the draft of a new media regulatory framework has sent shock waves through Pakistan’s news media industry, drawing sharp criticism from journalists and human rights defenders.

The document, which surfaced around 27 May, indicates that the government might be considering the creation of a converged media regulator through a Presidential Ordinance. The new statutory authority titled the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) will regulate films, TV, print publications, and digital media in the country, according to the document containing the draft ordinance seen by Digital Rights Monitor.

Opposition from media stakeholders and civil society 

Media stakeholders slammed the draft ordinance on Friday, calling it an attempt to impose “martial law” on the press.

“The proposed law is draconian in scope and devastating in its impact on the constitutional principles and guarantees for freedom of expression, media freedoms, and the right to information as well as the profession of journalism,” read a joint statement issued by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), and the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC).

In a separate development, the PFUJ has also expressed concerns about recent remarks by the Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry about attacks on Pakistani journalists. Mr. Chaudhry said in a recent BBC interview that some Pakistani journalists in the past had used alleged attacks as an excuse to seek immigration abroad. The PFUJ leaders said the minister’s statement reflects a “lack of seriousness on part of the government in preventing attacks on media persons” and demanded an apology from him.

The federal ministry of information and broadcasting has not denied the existence of the PMDA draft ordinance so far. Separately, however, the ministry invited comments from the Pakistan Broadcasters Association through a letter dated 20 May on a “draft concept paper” for the proposed PMDA. The letter confirms the federal government’s plans to restructure the country’s media regulatory framework.

Expansion of regulatory regime for broadcast and digital media 

The document containing the draft ordinance shows that the PMDA will take over the functions currently performed by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the Press Council of Pakistan, the Press Registrar, the Audit Bureau of Circulation, and the film censor board. The PMDA would also regulate “the establishment and operation of digital media including online newspapers, web TV channels, OTT content platforms, online news channels, video logs etc.”

According to the draft ordinance, services related to electronic media, print, digital media, and film production and distribution will need to get licenses, registration certificates, declarations or no-objection certificates from the PMDA to operate legally. The licensing and registration fees will be determined by the authority. Existing license holders will be allowed to operate as is, according to the draft ordinance, which means hitherto unregulated digital media service providers and on-demand media distributors will be most affected by the new regulations.

The proposed ordinance states that the PMDA chairperson will be a grade 21 or grade 22 bureaucrat from the Information Group. Six members of the authority’s 11-member board will be appointed from the general public by the President on the advice of the federal government while the remaining will be ex-officio representatives from the information ministry, interior ministry, the telecom regulator, the board of revenue, and the competition commission.

Excessive content regulation 

In addition to a “code of conduct” for programmes and advertisements to be specified later, the ordinance indicates that the media licensees will have to abide by 17 conditions, including a host of content restrictions related to the State, judiciary, and national security.

Violations will be punishable by jail terms of three to five years and fines worth millions of rupees. The PMDA will have powers to inspect the premises of license holders and undertake investigations about licensees. It may also seize equipment and seal the premises of any licensee found in violation of the regulations after issuing show cause notices.

According to the draft ordinance, the PMDA will have arbitrary powers to prohibit any media content “without issuing show cause notice and affording the opportunity of hearing” if it finds the content to be in violation of restrictions on the constitutional right to freedom of speech or “engaging in…abuse of media power” by harming the interests of another licensee or intentionally harming any other person.

“This is censorship by another name as these not only raise entry barriers for new media players but also to keep older and more experienced media players hostage to the whims of bureaucrats, authoritarian politicians and behind the scene powers pulling strings to make media focused only on survival, not professionalism,” the joint statement by the PFUJ, PBC, and HRCP mentioned.

Media Complaints Council & Tribunal

Media complaints councils will operate in 10 cities to receive public complaints against news, analysis, and programmes, according to the draft ordinance.

While this may appear similar to the existing complaints mechanism under PEMRA, the new media complaints councils will also receive complaints against “films and online platforms or (content) distributed by any media service provider”. The councils will recommend actions, including fines, to the authority after investigating the complaints.

The decisions of the councils or authority can be challenged before a 10-member “media tribunal” set up under the ordinance, according to the draft. The tribunal will also oversee issues related to the salary, employment, and other professional problems of media workers. An advisory commission with equal representation from government and media stakeholders will help with the selection of chairpersons and members of the complaints councils and the tribunal.

Jurisdiction of courts barred

The document containing the draft ordinance also mentions that “only (the) Supreme Court of Pakistan shall have jurisdiction to question the legality of anything done or decision or any action taken under the ordinance”. The barred jurisdiction of high courts could be in response to the experience of the current broadcast regulatory framework in which PEMRA’s decisions are often challenged by broadcasters in the high courts to get a stay of enforcement.

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