February Issue 2019
Dial ‘PMRA’ for a Muzzled Media
One of the first things that the Federal Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, did after taking over was announce the creation of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) – a single entity that would unify all previous bodies regulating matters related to media.
Chaudhry made the initial announcement in August 2018. In October, he confirmed that the first draft of the proposed PMRA had been sent to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP), in addition to the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), the Pakistan Broadcasting Association (PBA), the Council of Pakistan Newspapers Editors (CPNE) and other media bodies.
On January 12, Chaudhry tweeted that the draft had been finalised: “We are aware of the recent surge in fake news and the concerns therein, hence the draft of a single, efficient and powerful Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA) has been finalised and sent to all stakeholders. It will be passed after due deliberation by Parliament.” Once approved by the Parliament, PMRA will have powers to regulate the electronic, print and digital media.
After the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government significantly cut down on the advertisements for news channels and publications, numerous media houses have suffered losses. This has prompted many of them to downsize their staff, and slash salaries.
Under the new government, a further increase in self-censorship has been witnessed with many prominent media houses being urged to steer clear of controversial subjects, spearheaded by any critique of the military establishment. The mainstream TV channels’ blackout of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) is an example of the rise in censorship.
Therefore, in such a climate, many journalists see PMRA as yet another attempt by the state to arbitrarily control the media. The PCP has unanimously rejected the proposal to create PMRA, urging the government to ensure press freedom.
“The media community has always struggled for the right to information, press freedom and the rights of its readers,” said veteran journalist Zia Shahid. “PCP is an independent, autonomous and self-regulatory body, which has redressed the public’s concern and worked for the implementation of a code of ethics in the newspaper industry. All the media stakeholders had unanimously rejected the concept of PMRA,” he continued.
Given the fact that PMRA would have powers to regulate the online sphere as well, digital rights activists are concerned that there could be a further clampdown on social media. The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has identified four prominent areas of concerns vis-à-vis PMRA. The first is centralisation, given that the authority will be regulating several contrasting mediums. The second is the broadness of the legislation: the draft needs to be meticulously worded so as not to be open to abuse.
“Jurisprudence from around the world suggests that legislation governing speech and freedom of expression should not cast a wide net of regulation, because it can open the doors for arbitrary censorship,” says Founder and Director of DRF, Nighat Dad. The DRF has also expressed concern over the lack of judicial oversight with regards to appealing against the decisions of the PMRA, and underlined that its dependence on the government is problematic.
“Adequate safeguards must be in place to ensure that the PMRA is both financially and structurally independent of the government, otherwise it can lend itself to serving as a political branch of the government,” says Dad, who is worried about the privacy of social media-users, given that Pakistan still does not have a data protection law.
“Privacy is a very important issue when it comes to the regulation of social media, since [it] means that individual citizens will also be regulated along with media practitioners – anyone can create content on social media as opposed to electronic and print media,” she says. “Given that there is no personal data protection law in Pakistan, there are no requisite safeguards to ensure that the PMRA upholds the right to privacy when holding individual users to account. Based on experience from other countries and jurisdictions, privacy is often the first right to be sacrificed at the altar of internet regulation,” she continues.
On January 22, Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) hosted a consultation to get stakeholder input for the PMRA draft. The key recommendations from the meeting included the following:
1) The need for parliamentary oversight to ensure independence and transparency.
2) Ensuring that PMRA is a multi-stakeholder.
3) That the regulation of digital content is futile and counterproductive as it is too large a platform to be controlled in such an arbitrary manner. Any provisions dealing with such regulation should be removed. While fake news and cyber crimes should be dealt with, a single body must not exercise complete control over digital media.
4) The holding of public consultations and hearings on the legislation before it is finalised and the addressing of various ambiguities that the draft does not clarify.
Sadaf Baig, Director and Cofounder of MMfD, underlines that there is a lack of parliamentary involvement in the PMRA draft. “Currently, the law sees the federal government as the final word and doesn’t engage the parliament at all,” she says. “From decisions about appointments, to decisions about directives that can be issued to the body [when needed], all authority seems to lie with the federal government, and should be redirected to the parliament through relevant parliamentary committees.” she adds.
Baig points out the ambiguity in the draft as well. “It is difficult to say exactly what would happen once PMRA is in place, as the initial draft on the scope of the authority is extremely vague and doesn’t include any definitions. However, it is clear that the government aims to devise mechanisms to create a more authoritarian regime around content,” she says.
“The most troubling clause,” Baig continues, “is the requirement for licensing and regulation that is implicit in the draft. Without a demonstration of the fact that the government actually understands how and why the internet is different from other mediums, these attempts can create an environment where speech of individual citizens is also monitored, surveilled, regulated and censored by the state.”
According to Baig, while there are international precedents for media convergence, this can be problematic in Pakistan. “While converged models of regulation are becoming more common across the world, they are a risky venture in countries like Pakistan, where centralised authorities have traditionally been used as a tool for control,”she says. “So, the arguments that are generally made for uniformity of regulation/content across mediums are not likely to stand true in Pakistan.”
Nighat Dad says the only way PMRA can work is if it pays due regard to human rights. “If the creation of [PMRA] is through a consultative and multi-stakeholder dialogue that genuinely takes into account the concerns of the media and the challenges they face, then this body can correct some of [these] challenges,” she says. “It is important that a human rights approach is taken.”