Islamabad — The Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights on Monday unanimously found that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has no jurisdiction to regulate Web TV and Over The Top (OTT) content services.
The committee had called the PEMRA Chairman for a briefing about the authority’s recent proposal to regulate Web TV and OTT services.
“(PEMRA) failed to satisfy us regarding jurisdiction,” the committee chairman Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said, after the committee had conducted a detailed discussion on the merits and demerits of the proposed regulation.
Senator Khokhar said PEMRA’s contention that Section 2(c) of its ordinance allows it to regulate digital media services contradicts the regulator’s position.
“The committee finds PEMRA has no jurisdiction (over this issue),” the committee chairman stated, with the approval of the committee members present. “PEMRA’s proposal of regulation (for Web TV and OTT) is tantamount to going beyond its mandate and in contravention of Article 19.”
The Senate committee’s pronouncement effectively terminates for now the media regulator’s plans, which were made public on 8 January when PEMRA shared a consultation paper to seek comments about the regulation of online streaming media services. The deadline for comments was 14 February.
Civil society groups, journalists, lawyers, and independent digital content producers had declared the proposed regulation “unacceptable” and indicated it would lead to violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution. The Senate human rights committee took up the matter to follow up on these concerns.
Media Matters for Democracy, in the feedback submitted to PEMRA in response to the proposed policy, also highlighted that the proposed policy falls out of PEMRA’s legal mandate.
In the packed committee room number four at the Parliament House, PEMRA Chairman Saleem Baig presented the regulatory framework to the senators. Mr. Baig said the proposed regulation was intended to create a “level playing field” among traditional broadcasters and the new digital service providers. PEMRA officials also said the proposed regulation was not final. The regulator would not go against the feedback provided by a majority of the stakeholders, they said.
Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz challenged the PEMRA officials about the regulator’s jurisdiction over the Internet. Ms. Farooq said international organisations, such as the Asia Internet Coalition and the Asia Video Industry Association, were also against PEMRA’s proposed regulation. Other committee members also questioned whether the proposed regulation would interfere with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s regulatory mandate over cyberspace or not.
Aftab Alam of the Institute of Research Advocacy and Development, Iqbal Khattak of Freedom Network, independent journalist Matiullah Jan, Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation, Sadaf Khan of Media Matters for Democracy, and Usama Khilji of Bolo Bhi shared the perspective of media and civil society organisations in front of the Senate committee.
Mr. Jan said the proposed regulation on Web TV was not about fair market competition but designed to stifle dissent online, especially on platforms such as YouTube.
“Fair competition is not a competition to tell lies,” he said, criticizing PEMRA’s level playing field argument. “Fair competition must be to ensure the publication of truth.”
Ms. Khan said PEMRA’s inability to implement the digital switch-over of analog cable networks shows that it is not serious about creating a level playing field for broadcasters. She said the regulation also does not clearly mention what will happen to Pakistani online publishers who monetize their media content.
“The proposed framework will end up regulating the individual’s speech and freedom to do business on the same level as corporations,” Ms. Khan said.
Summing up the discussion, the Committee Chairman Senator Khokhar said all the concerns regarding the regulation raised before the committee were significant. But, he said, the question of jurisdiction was of central importance as it made all other issues secondary. With the approval of the members, the chairman said the committee finds PEMRA does not have the jurisdiction to regulate Web TV and OTT services.
Speaking on the development, the Executive Director of Media Matters for Democracy, Asad Baig said, “this policy had no grounding at all to start with. In addition to infringing the most fundamental rights, the policy could prove to be extremely dangerous for Pakistan’s digital economy and for the local content producers. We think it’s a victory for digital media in Pakistan”.