In press release, Information Ministry rebuts rights watchdog’s concerns over proposed legislation increasing government control over media
Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Wednesday sought an “apology” from Human Rights Watch for publishing a “wrong and fabricated” report on the controversial Pakistan Media Development Authority (PDMA) that has already been slammed by multiple journalism bodies of the country as a means to silence free media.
Claiming the U.S.-based rights watchdog had not checked the “factual position” of the proposed legislation, the ministry’s statement alleged the report penned by Associate Asia Director Patricia Gossman was “misleading and fabricated.”
HRW’s criticism, published on its website on Monday, criticized the PMDA for “seeking broad new powers to control the media as part of [the government’s] crackdown on freedom of expression.” It noted that journalists, human rights activists and political leaders across Pakistan had warned that its text increased the state’s powers to censor and restrict media.
The HRW noted that the government claimed to be replacing the “fractured” regulatory environment currently in place by bringing all media—print, television, radio, films, and digital media—under one regulator. The Information Ministry’s rebuttal claims the same, stating that that Pakistan has “half dozen” outdated laws that “do not match with modern day requirements.” It claims that the new law would help Pakistan cope with the challenges of “fake news, disinformation, hate speech and copyright violations”, in addition to making the country a “major global center for multimedia information and content services.”
HRW, however, remains unconvinced of the benefit of a single authority, emphasizing that broadcast media regulator—the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority—“has long been the enforcer of the government’s intensifying campaign of repression of the media.” It alleged that PEMRA had, in the past, ordered channels to shut down for spurious reasons, banned live interviews of opposition leaders, and barred cable operators from broadcasting networks that aired critical programs.
“Journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers said the PMDA law would grant new unchecked powers to the government-controlled regulator by setting up special ‘media tribunals’ that will have the power to impose steep fines for media organizations and journalists who violate its code of conduct or publish content it deems to be ‘fake news’,” reads the HRW statement. “The proposed law would also increase government control by allowing government officials to be appointed to key positions,” it adds in a portion that has not been rebutted by the Information Ministry.
“The government has kept the final draft of the PMDA law and the entire drafting process secret, raising further apprehensions among the media and civil society groups. The government has undertaken no meaningful consultative process on the law,” HRW’s Gossman continues in her statement, which has been directly rejected by Pakistan.
The External Publicity Wing said consultations were continuing with stakeholders for the PMDA, and stressed that the information minister had given a detailed presentation to a joint sitting of Senate and National Assembly Standing Committees on Information and Broadcasting, as well as the federal cabinet, “which negates the impression that the proposed bill is being kept secret.”
“The media regulatory framework in Pakistan does need to be amended—not to centralize more powers in government censors, but to create independent media regulators dedicated to protecting free expression. 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,” the HRW concludes.
The PMDA’s draft text has already been rejected by the All Pakistan Newspaper Society; Council of Press Editors; Pakistan Broadcasters Association; Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists; and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors, who have described it as “unconstitutional” in a joint statement. Opposition politicians have also rejected it, with PPP Parliamentary Leader in the Senate—and former journalist—Sherry Rehman describing it as yet another example of the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression.
Independent global media watchdogs have repeatedly declared Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with the country ranking 145 out of 180 on the Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders, earlier this year, declared Prime Minister Imran Khan a “predator” of press freedom, describing him as having “dictatorial tendencies” and overseeing “brazen censorship” during the three years of his administration.