In statement, rights watchdog says proposed legislation tantamount to placing all media under control of ‘centralized censorship office’
Rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) on Wednesday urged Pakistan to abandon the controversial Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) bill, saying it called for a “centralized censorship office” representative of the worst authoritarian regimes.
“Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the Pakistani government’s new draft media law which, if passed unchanged, would impose a media tribunal able to issue arbitrary decisions with no possibility of appeal by journalists or public,” it said in a statement that voiced support for the campaign of Pakistani media outlets and journalists against the proposed legislation.
Noting that widespread outrage had not dissuaded the government from continuing with its plans to submit the existing legislation in Parliament, RSF warned that Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain’s claims of the law merely seeking to rationalize media regulatory bodies was “just an excuse” to strengthen the government’s ability to control journalism.
“We urge the Pakistani government to immediately abandon the PMDA bill, which, as it stands, carries within it the seeds of a centralized censorship office typical of the worst authoritarian regimes,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “If adopted, it would reestablish martial law for the media, recalling the worst moments of military dictatorship that Pakistan has known. This bill’s provisions are utterly incompatible with a democratic system,” he added.
Referring to a clause in the bill that seeks to regulate all journalistic content, including online media, through a single body, the RSF said it would “enable the government to curb the freedom to provide news and information online” just as it had already done with traditional media. “RSF already criticized similar proposed decrees twice in 2020, first in February and then in December,” it noted, claiming that the digital domain was the only place left in Pakistan where information circulated outside government control.
Noting that public criticism of Islam, the military and the justice system are already penalized in Pakistan, the RSF said the PMDA would take this further by also banning “undue criticism” of the president and parliamentarians; “demoralizing the armed forces” and satirizing religious officials. As the PMDA does not define what would constitute such an offense, warns RSF, the body would be free to interpret it arbitrarily and “trample on the guarantees for press freedom in Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution.”
On the PMDA’s requirement of every source of news and information—whether a TV network or a blogger—to obtain a license to publish or broadcast, the RSF warns that it would, in practice, enable the regulatory body to silence any outlet or individual not to their liking by rescinding their license.
The RSF also criticized the makeup of the PMDA being solely determined by various government ministers and officials, stressing this would enable the government to exercise strict control over what the PMDA could ban or permit. It said the bill, in its current form, provided no credible appeal mechanism, calling into question the normal relationship between executive and judicial power.