Clouds of Confusion Prevail Over Proposed Media Law

During the last two months, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry and Minister of State for Information Farrukh Habib have been holding consultative and brainstorming sessions with senior journalists, and independent media watchdogs. The purpose? To get stakeholder input on Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA), a new regulatory body to license and regulate all types of media. Even as these ‘consultations’ go on, ironically the draft of the law remains elusive, a secret that the ministry refuses to share. 

One Law to Rule Them All

The law aims to replace all other media regulatory laws, effectively abolishing  the Press Council Ordinance, 2002; The Press, Newspaper, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002; Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) Act 1973; Pakistan Electronic Media Ordinance 2002 as amended by PEMRA Amendment Act 2007, and The Motion Pictures Ordinance 1979. The available information on the Ordinance and the subsequent setting up of the new Authority suggests that it will potentially emerge as an all powerful authority to centrally regulate all forms of media.

The idea of the creation of a centralised Authority to regulate all kinds of media, is being criticised by many experts and media practitioners.

Continued Secrecy 

Despite constant claims of hosting consultations, the government has refused to share the draft law with stakeholders.   A draft version titled Pakistan Media Development Authority Bill, was leaked earlier this year. However, after the draft was criticised in the media, the ministry denied that it was an authentic draft and termed it ‘fake’. 

Requests for an authentic draft went unanswered. However, in subsequent talk shows and media talks, the Federal Minister has mentioned various elements of the law that appear to be the same as included in the document that had been leaked earlier. 

The government has also floated a ‘concept note’ which contains similar elements. Later, in consultative meetings, the terminologies used by the Minister appeared to be different from the concept note that was officially shared – since legal language has to be precise, the discrepancies between the concept note and the presentations need to be explained.  Federal and state ministers of information did not respond to DRM’s multiple requests for comment on the passage of the law.

What we know about the PMDA

Based on the presentations shared by the ministry at consultative meetings, the PMDA appears to be an umbrella regulatory authority.  

According to the information shared by the Ministry in a consultative meeting held on 16th August, 2021, the PMDA seeks to converge Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), Press Council of Pakistan (PCP), Central Board of Films Censors (CBFC), Press Registrar Office, Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), Implementation Tribunal of Newspapers EMployees (ITNE). The ministry holds that the Authority will focus on “development/innovation of digital economy, training and research”. 

They also claim that the PMDA will create ease of business by “simplification in procedures by eliminating paperwork”, by introducing maximum use of digital technology, removing discretionary powers and ensuring transparency.

Proposed organogram of the Authority shows that the Authority would operate under a chairman supported by Media Complaints Commission and Media Tribunals. According to details shared by the ministry, the commission would consist of four members from the government, four members from the stakeholder groups. 

The media complaints commission, being enacted to entertain complaints regarding media content and complaints regarding non-payment of salaries to media workers, would consist of a chairperson and five members, including at least two women. The commission will be empowered to summon any licence holders and registered media outlets and ask for explanations against complaints. 

Media Tribunals are another pillar of the PMDA’s structure. The tribunals’ chair has to be an individual who is or has been a qualified High Court or Supreme Court Judge. The tribunal will have 10 members including the chairperson. 

Procedures regarding the appointment and selection of members of the Authority and others are yet unclear. A concept note previously circulated held that the chairman and eleven members will be appointed by the President of Pakistan on the advice of the Federal Government. The chairman of the authority will be appointed from a panel of grade 21-22 of Information Group officers.

The fear of fines and criminality would deter reporters and their editors from going after exclusive and inside stories of top level meetings like Cabinet and Prime Minister meetings.

Legal Liabilities

Fawad Chaudhary, the Federal Information Minister has said that the PMDA does not contain any criminal liabilities, and will act only as a civil law. However, the law intends to create systems through which individual internet users can also be fined, in addition to licensed media entities. 

The minister also holds that the law will have direct jurisdiction over issues of labor rights; including non-payment of journalists’ salaries by media houses. There has been speculation that the inclusion of sections regarding wages of media workers are an attempt to create favorable feedback for the law.

Representative bodies unite against PMDA

For now all the media bodies, Pakistan Bar Council, Human Rights Watch, trade unions and political parties have rejected the PMDA but as per the members of the journalistic bodies, the government is hell bent to go ahead with the legislation.

Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) President Shahzada Zulfiqar is pessimistic about the PMDA law and terms it an attempt to extend government an act of government in getting more control of the media rather than regulating it. “Just go through the available draft and you will get to see that the whole body will be a subservient tool of the government,” he remarked adding, 11 members and chairman of PMDA would be appointed by the President of Pakistan, and so the members will get appointment through the federal government.

He said that the other members would also get the nod from the central government as members of interior, Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), Secretary Information and others exist at the federal level. “So they will definitely toe the line which the federal government will give,” he maintained.

Zulfiqar concluded, “Whatever they are up to, it will have a far-reaching impact on journalism and journalists [in the country].”

Sarmad Ali, President of All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), says that after the 18th Amendment the print media did not fall in the federal government’s legislative list and it is not in concurrent list but with the provincial government. Federal government cannot legislate on issues of print media, the print issue, he says. Sarmad says newspapers are on the decline in the country and the government needs to empower them rather than bringing new laws to control print media. “This new law will cripple the newspaper economy,” he concluded.

Kazim Khan, the acting president of Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) also laments at the PMDA proposal, “You got PEMRA which has 600 employees, PCP, for print media while the social media is regulated through [PTA and] cyber crime wing of federal investigation agency (FIA), so why would they need a new law.”

“I agree that legislation is the purview of the federal government but not to muzzle the voice of people,” Khan says. The government has not provided CPNE or anyone else with a copy of the bill, he said. 

Khan maintains that if the government considers PCP a toothless body then there is something wrong with the government because it needs to strengthen the institution and same is with PEMRA where over 600 employees are getting salaries for the past 15 years so you cannot brush it aside with one legislation.

“Who is stopping the government from amendments in the PCP, PEMRA and other legislations that are being disposed off to pass PMDA, a new law altogether,” Khan adds, asking, what led the government to have a new body because they want to whip print, electronic and digital media with one shot, simultaneously.  

He concluded that employees need to be paid their salaries and address related issues. The government has played well as workers would ask the journalistic bodies why they were opposing such laws because such issues were never addressed in the past.

For now all the media bodies, Pakistan Bar Council, Human Rights Watch, trade unions and political parties have rejected the PMDA but as per the members of the journalistic bodies, the government is hell bent to go ahead with the legislation.

Patricia Gossman, Associate Asia Director of Human Rights Watch issued a statement, which states, “With journalists under relentless attack for doing their jobs, the Pakistan government needs to stop trying to control reporters and instead start protecting media freedom.” She also feared that the proposed law would increase government control by allowing government officials to be appointed to key positions

Expected impact 

Journalists fear that the law would create an environment where self-censorship is rampant. Muhammad Imran, who works with Neo News is one of the journalists who attended a briefing and said that it all sounds good to ears but the fact is that the stories reporters would give with sources would come to an end. He said, “The fear of fines and criminality would deter reporters and their editors from going after exclusive and inside stories of top level meetings like Cabinet and Prime Minister meetings.”

The response from the stakeholders makes it clear that proper consultation and a reimaging of a converged regulator is direly needed. The government needs to demonstrate sincerity in the consultative process if it aims to quell the fear that  the intent of PMDA is to push the media under authoritarian control.

At the moment, the sentiments of the journalist community towards the Authority are best summarised in the words of Mazhar Abbas, “If the PMDA is enforced, it will be the death of the media.”

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