08/05/2022

The Government Will Have To Do More Than Just Promises To Protect Free Speech

Following the installation of new government brought to power by a successful no-confidence vote on April 10, 2022 against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N)-led government started chasing its goals. On April 19, in an attempt to undo the policies of the previous regime, Maryam Aurangzeb, the new minister of information and broadcasting, announced the dismantlement of the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA), and announced the new government’s intention to ‘review’ Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) too. 

“No black law will be enacted or worked upon that will restrict the people’s right to freedom of expression,” she said in her press conference after taking oath as information minister. 

The announcement of disbanding draconian PMDA Ordinance and revisiting PECA is a welcoming move. However, free expression advocates still remain doubtful about predicting anything good for press freedom in the country. For one, the previous government of PTI repeatedly spoke about the PMDA Ordinance but it was not passed into a law, so it could not be ‘dismantled’ by the new government. In addition, the PECA that Aurangzeb said will be revisited because of its ability to “restrict […] freedom of expression” is the work of her party’s government in 2016. Critics posit that the new government will have to show results in order for the announcements to be believable.

Regardless, when the plans to work on the PMDA Ordinance was announced, the deemed curbs on press freedom set the alarm bells for civil society and the journalist fraternity. In the face of mounting criticism, the PTI government stepped back from promulgation of PMDA later but continued to express intention to pass the ordinance. In June 2021, all media representative bodies collectively announced that the PMDA was a move to disrupt media freedom and strengthen the control over the press through ‘information bureaucracy’. 

PMDA and controversies

Announcement of PMDA drew continued criticism from all independent bodies advocating for press freedom. Journalists and free speech advocates dubbed it an ‘extension’ to the vision of the former military ruler Ayub Khan’s ‘notorious’ Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO) 1963. PMDA, compared to PPO, was more stringent in nature given its approach to centralise the powers to regulate all kinds of media under one authority.

According to the unverified copies of the PMDA Ordinance that were surfaced in the public, apart from broadcast and print media, the PMDA intended to establish strict regulation on digital media — the medium already regulated by the PTA under PECA 2016. It could have authority to demand registration of digital platforms, could check content published online, and control revenue generated by digital entities. In a bid to widen the draconian net of constraints, the proposed PMDA would issue guidelines for “code of conduct and national security issues” albeit ambiguous in nature.

Moreover, in an attempt to enhance its ambit of regulation further, under the ‘law’, film production and exhibition needed a prior No-Objection Certificate (NOC). 

Finally, the unverified copy of the draft suggested that PMDA, through a tribunal, led by a chairperson qualified to be a high court judge, the PMDA could have the authority to hand over severe punishments to violators, including imprisonment of upto three years and fine of worth 25 million Rupees.

The stringent regulations forced experts to cry foul. The law was termed “a blatant attempt to exercise excessive control over the media in order to ‘manage’ freedom of expression,” and a violation of Article 19-A of the Constitution of Pakistan which ensures freedom of expression to citizens. 

The former government was said to have ruled through ordinances while bypassing much necessary parliamentary process—the democratic way of passing legislation. Of the 73 ordinances that it passed during its three and a half years of power, two were specifically designed and introduced to ‘regulate’ the press in Pakistan. Through an ordinance, the aim of the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) was to replace the already existing mainstream and digital media regulatory bodies including Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and many others, and consolidate the powers under one authority. It was aimed to ‘broaden’ the horizon of the regulation of media to include cyberspace, drama serials and films.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of a think-tank Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), says, “This is true that the government was increasingly relying on ordinances. Its average of promulgating ordinances was higher than that of [the] last two governments led by PPP & PMLN.” He tells the Digital Rights Monitor, “The key reason behind resorting to ordinances, and specifically relating to PMDA and PECA, was autocratic tendencies within the government, and almost total disdain for dialogue with the opposition or other groups which had a view different from theirs. They thought that through legislation like [PMDA], the government will have a better control of dissent expressed through various media including social media.” 

Mehboob also believes that most governments are afraid of transparency as it facilitates accountability. According to him, governments want to control the content appearing on mainstream and social media. “Through these ordinances, instead of improving the quality of decisions and governance, it was easier to clamp down the criticism. These ordinances, if allowed to continue, would have seriously damaged freedom of expression and transparency,” he says.

Over Regulating Speech

One of the significant aspects of the PMDA was to establish regulation of online content. To keep a heavy hand on online criticism, PMDA would have made it mandatory for websites to acquire a licence and have prior assent of the government to initiate. Despite the fact that section 37 of PECA gives PTA the powers to regulate online content — the authority that the PTA has been exercising liberally, this part of the PMDA ordinance would have been the trickiest one to explain for its ability to overregulate online media apart from clash of jurisdictions. Media and digital media right advocates believe that the laws enacted to control offline content cannot be imposed on digital media platforms alike. However, it is true that monitoring digital media platforms was one of the prime targets of the PMDA. 

Sabookh Syed, Chairman Digital Media Alliance Pakistan (DigiMAPPK), tells the Digital Rights Monitor, “Laws to regulate offline media already exist. PEMRA regularly sends show-cause notices to broadcast media outlets.” He says that the increased scrutiny of the mainstream news platform led to the popularity of digital platforms that enable people to openly express their opinions. “It’s difficult to regulate digital media that give alternative platforms to critics. Our’ part [as digital platforms] was the most difficult part to regulate and PMDA was the way forward to do that,” he shares.

According to Syed, when the previous government failed to regulate the digital platforms, many journalists working for digital media were harassed and intimidated. 

“Freedom of speech,” Syed believes, “is not acceptable to any organisation working in any capacity for vested interest including governments.”

“During war of any kind, truth is the first victim and information from critical areas like ex-FATA and Balochistan is blocked which only leads to spread of misinformation,” he adds. 

According to the latest report released by Freedom Network Pakistan, at least 12 out of the total 86 violations (or 14 percent) against media practitioners that were recorded from May 2021 to April 2022, the targets were journalists working with digital media. These included 2 of the 4 journalists who were killed.

Widening the information black hole

Where the World Press Freedom Index ranks Pakistan 157 out of 180 countries in 2022, the country scored a meagre 25 on the Freedom on the Net 2021 Index which tags it ‘Not Free’, indicating the gaps in internet access. Moreover, the pandemic exposed further gaps and inaccessibility to the internet when the country needed to morph its physical educational space into cyberspace. Glaring inequalities in terms of the internet accessibility emerged from ex-FATA and Balochistan province during this time. For a long time, media advocates and experts have termed Balochistan an ‘information black hole.’ This refers to lack of mainstream media coverage of the issues in these parts of the country. In light of this on-ground news blackout, alternative media became popular to bring the issues of the regions to the limelight. With the announcement of the proposed PMDA, it was feared that the ‘information black hole’ would further widen. 

Adnan Aamir, the Vice President of DigiMAPPK and Editor of Balochistan Voices, tells the Digital Rights Monitor, “It’s true that mainstream media ignores Balochistan, and social media and web news papers are the only source for the people to consume news.” 

Aamir believes that if the PMDA Ordinance was passed or implemented, it would have broken the chain of information sharing maintained by those who shared it through alternative or digital media. He adds that this would have created an information vacuum and the problems could not be highlighted, let alone resolved.

Curtailing freedom of speech, unfortunately, leads to misinformation or disinformation. In most of the cases, places where freedom of speech is suppressed, running propaganda campaigns is easy. In essence, laws such as PMDA enhance the chances of propaganda campaigns filling the vacuum,” Adnan further adds. “Such laws,” he believes, “increase frustration among masses as they lose even the least available platforms to raise their issues and concerns.” 

Marginalised Voices Are More Likely To Be Affected 

Farieha Aziz, co-founder Bolo Bhi, a digital rights advocacy, policy and research organisation, says, “The disadvantaged and already oppressed segments of society always have it worse than others. The same applies when regressive laws are weaponised and used against individuals to curb their expression when they voice a divergent position or dissenting view, which often drives marginalised groups and individuals off platforms.

Dr. Sadia Mahmood, assistant Professor at Department of Mass Communication in University of Karachi, also agrees that alternative and digital platforms have played a significant role in empowering voices such as women and transgender activists. She believes that laws like PMDA would have made marginalised communities suffer more. 

“The alternative spaces have not only empowered women and communities like transgender and minority groups, but they have also empowered students. Most of the time, students have suffered exploitation. Now they express it through platforms provided by alternative media. The laws are vague in nature and are not defined specifically, and can be interpreted as per the wishes and anyone can be arrested. Hence, marginalised communities suffer the most,” Dr. Mahmood explains.     

When the laws are drafted, they are devoid of considerations of their impact on those that are already living on the margins in the society. Saro Imran, a Lahore-based transgender rights activist, says that she is 80 percent safer on social media while carrying out her activism compared to offline spaces. Despite this, she says it is hard to file complaints when an activist is harassed. “We can’t do anything. The process to lodge a complaint is too complicated. It frustrates [the] complainant to lodge a complaint with any anti-harassment department,” Imran told Digital Rights Monitor. 

Aziz says that PECA, for instance, has failed to meet its supposed intention of protecting the vulnerable. She adds, “PECA was passed using the narrative that women needed to be protected online from harassment. Instead, while it has provided little to no recourse to harassment, it has been used to harass them.

In September 2020, the Coalition For Women in Journalism (CFWIJ) published a joint statement, signed by 144 women journalists, highlighting the continuous stream of attacks that these journalists are subjected to, for doing their work. 

The statement read, We women journalists now often find it difficult to remain active and engage freely on digital platforms. Out of fear of being hounded and harassed; and our dignity violated through vile abuse, many of us self-censor.” It further added, “The most worrisome and totally unacceptable fact is that when we are under attack, we do not enjoy the protection of the law.” 

The statement put forward six demands to the government, including the need to stress on policy reforms to make implementation of the laws like PECA more efficient, and the need to introduce a journalists safety bill that is “cognizant of the digital threats and violence against journalists.”

A research study by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) titled “Rethinking Electronic Crimes Act: How Cyber Laws Are Weaponised Against Women,” highlights hurdles which the Act poses to women complainants. In response to criticism of PECA, the then-information minister dubbed it a ‘calculated attempt bolstered by foreign-funded NGO agenda’ to undo a ‘much needed’ law. Nevertheless, the law, as predicted by civil society groups and right activists, proved cumbersome in facilitating complainants. 

Aziz who co-founded Bolo Bhi and has been in the forefronts of advocacy on PECA, says, “Laws like PECA have certainly been used to target and isolate such groups and individuals; another tool to silence is spreading disinformation and discrediting someone in public, even resorting to character assassination. And unfortunately the legal remedy for this is difficult and long drawn out, and not effective even when attempted.”

Will The New Government Follow A Similar Course Of Strategy?

On April 9, after Islamabad High Court declared PECA Amendment Ordinance that widened the scope of section 20 of PECA that criminalises defamation, unconstitutional, the newly appointed Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in a tweet congratulated media outlets and civil-society organisations for their struggles, and said, “It marks a great victory for our media & democratic forces.”

It is imperative to mention that the parent law PECA was a brainchild of the PML-N government when it was in power from 2013 through 2018. It paved the way for the law in 2016 despite severe criticism from civil society and their reservation on the law’s ability to stifle civil liberties, including freedom of speech and press freedom in the country.

Iqbal Khattak, the director of Freedom Network Pakistan, says, “The current government is not only the PML-N’s government, it’s a government of joint opposition. It’s not less likely that PML-N mindset will 100 percent reflect. Almost 17 parties are part of the ruling government at the moment. It’s a different situation as compared to previous governments of PML-N.”

According to Khattak, the track record of PML-N in terms of press freedom has not been good historically. “As opposition in the previous regime, the PML-N government itself suffered a lot because of suppression of freedom of speech. They should be mindful of the fact that how important is media freedom for political parties and others alike,” he says.

Sabookh Syed, Chairman Pakistan Digital Media Alliance (DigiMAPPK), sees the current government through a similar lens. He says, “The current government has announced plans to repeal draconian laws which curb the freedom of speech. This is a good omen. However, these things will continue in a similar passion but in a different way.”

Aziz concludes, It is good these positions are being stated but we must see these translate into action and undo a lot more. Just words and promises are not enough. The game plan for how and when this is to be done needs to be announced too.”

Ayaz is an independent journalist and researcher working with Baluchistan Voices as an Editorial Assistant. He's Digital Media Fellow (virtual) at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and covers climate change. Ayaz tweets at @Ayaz_Jurno

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