Home Latest News New Pakistan Government Disbands Controversial PMDA

New Pakistan Government Disbands Controversial PMDA

Information minister says incumbent leaders will reverse trend of muzzling media, censoring freedom of expression

by Staff Report

Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb. Photo courtesy PID

The new coalition government is disbanding the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) established by the ousted Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb announced on Tuesday.

“Whatever work has been done on the black law related to the PMDA, and in whatever shape it is … it has ceased to exist,” she told journalists in a first press conference within hours of taking oath of office. “We will not bring any black law which violates citizens’ constitutional right of freedom of expression,” she stressed, adding that the PMDA had been an attempt to “gag” an “already muzzled” media.

Expressing solidarity with journalists who had been blackballed by the PTI-led government and had either faced persecution or censorship, she said that the new government believed that freedom of expression helped society evolve and helped authorities deliver on their promises to the public.

Explaining that a joint action committee comprising all stakeholders, including media organizations, would be convened to discuss problems facing the industry, she emphasized that a consultative solution that would be acceptable to all would be formulated. Rubbishing the PMDA, she said that no new regulatory authority would be formed, as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) already served that role.

The PTI-led government had proposed forming the PMDA last year, claiming that it would centralize the regulation of print, broadcast and digital media in the country. The proposal had faced stringent backlash, with journalists, activists and the opposition—which is now in government—claiming it sought to strengthen the government’s ability to control journalism.

Reviewing PECA

Aurangzeb said the Islamabad High Court had termed a presidential ordinance that had amended the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) “unconstitutional” due to the efforts of journalists and the incumbent government, including the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), her party. “So now we will review this PECA law and take all stakeholders on board in this regard,” she said. “We will also identify the gaps which are there and were used to muzzle the media,” she added.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 was passed by a PMLN-led government when it was last in power from 2013-2018. The legislation has been described as “draconian,” with rights watchdogs stressing that it has primarily been used to silence freedom of expression rather than serving its stated intent of combating fake news, cybercrime and misinformation.

In addition, said the information minister, a bill related to the protection of journalists would soon be implemented. “Criticize us [government]. We will accept it wholeheartedly if it can improve the lives of Pakistanis and our performance,” she stressed, noting that the past four years of the PTI’s rule had “suffocated” Pakistani society and the new government would reverse this trend.

“I think we should now move towards a new beginning as a coalition government has been formed that represents all of Pakistan,” she said.

No tolerance

Responding to a question on whether the new government planned to take any action against a recent campaign on social media seeking to malign the Army and the judiciary, she said authorities had already started to take action. “Tweets were generated through bots. We have their Twitter handles. The ongoing campaign using faceless Twitter accounts and handles will not only be ended but the FIA [Federal Investigation Agency] will also be involved,” she stressed. “There is zero tolerance for this.”

“This does not come under freedom of expression as these campaigns are being run through software,” she said.

Warning the PTI against organizing protests outside the homes of journalists, she said this would not be tolerated. “We have instructed the inspector general of Islamabad to make sure that culprits are punished,” she added.

End to political victimization

To another question, she said the coalition government would not continue the PTI’s policy of “bad accountability” against its political opponents, adding that no innocent person would be sent to jail. However, she emphasized, the law would take its course. “Laws are present to tackle all those people who deprived the citizens of Pakistan of basic necessities and it will take its course,” she said.

She also confirmed that the new government had disbanded the Digital Media Wing set up by the previous government, claiming it had been primarily used to spread disinformation and harass critics on social media. The body’s employees have been transferred to the cyber wing, she added.

Responding to a query on President Arif Alvi refusing to administer oath of office to the federal cabinet and Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the information minister said he should realize that he has constitutional responsibilities that supersede his membership of the PTI. “If he cannot fulfil the oath he took when becoming president, then the best option for him is to resign,” she said.

She also claimed that PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari would take oath as a federal minister after returning from London, where he is reportedly to meet PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif. She said Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif would address the nation in a few days to announce the new government’s goals.

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