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‘Martial law’: Pakistan opposition, rights bodies condemn new media ordinance

An ordinance proposed by the Imran Khan government to regulate the media is at the centre of storm in Pakistan. Human rights bodies and media organisations have rejected the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) ordinance 2021, which proposes to repeal all media-related and merge them, and establishment of tribunals.

The ordinance also proposes to nominate a bureaucrat to head the PMDA – a provision which is being widely being criticised as coercive censorship.

The opposition parties as well as media organisations have called the ordinance “martial law”. Those against the proposed law have vowed to resist such draconian steps by the government by taking trade unions, academia, political parties and citizens’ organisations on board.

Strong objections

“Plans to centralise media oversight under one draconian authority, annual NOCs to remain operational, suspension/ penalties on way,” said Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Senator Sherry Rehman. After the new ordinance, media outlets will “either become state mouthpieces or go under”, she added.

Pakistan Muslim League (N) spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb on Twitter called the ordinance a “draconian, authoritarian, repressive and punitive” instrument to “suppress constitutional freedom of expression of print media, electronic media and online citizen journalism.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), an umbrella organisation of all journalist unions in the country, condemn the proposed law in a statement.

The civil and rights bodies have raised serious objections to the draft of the ordinance, stating that the proposed law reflects a “mindset hostile to the concept of people’s freedom of expression and right to information”.

What are the provisions?

The ordinance proposes to repeal all current media-related laws in the country and wants them to be merged under the PMDA. Pakistan has several media-related laws like the Newspaper Employees, (Conditions of Service Act), 1973; the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002 (amended in 2007); and the Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979.

These laws govern different mediums and the way content is present there. But the Imran Khan government now wants a single authority for the entire media sector – a move which is being vehemently opposed by various bodies.

The ordinance also proposes to establish media tribunals to hand down punishments of up to three years in jail and PKR 25 million in fines to content producers for violating the repressive new provisions.

Local reports said that the government has also proposed that the proposed authority will be headed by a bureaucrat of level Grade-22 – the highest rank for a civil servant in the country.

Past instances

Pakistan’s senior media editors raised alarm in April over a new directive by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) that advised satellite television channels not to report on government meetings under progress.

The editors said that Pemra was turning into a ‘censorship tool’ instead of acting as a regulator.

The EU Chronicle had reported in October 2020 that Journalists and the media are a priority target of Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), adding that such actions of intolerance towards independent journalism have increased dramatically since July 2018 when Imran Khan became prime minister.

A large number of journalists and social media activists became targets of the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016, accordign to Annual Pakistan media legal review 2020 report, launched by the Institute for Research, Advocacy and Development (IRADA) in April.

Several journalists and rights activists faced inquiries, abductions, investigations and arrests related to their online/social media activities and posts, the report said.

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