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EDITORIAL: The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) along with other segments of civil society have all very rightly united to reject the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance 2021, which the federal government intends to force down the media industry’s throat, as an attempt to impose a “media martial law.” It has been learnt on good authority that the present government’s obsession with forcefully regulating Pakistan’s entire media under one powerful regulatory body, for which a concept paper had been circulating among the country’s top decision-makers, is now going to be formalised through a presidential ordinance. “The proposed law is draconian in scope and devastating in impact on the constitutional principles and guarantees of freedom of expression, media freedoms, and the right to information as well as the profession of journalism,” the PFUJ-HRCP-PBC joint statement said.

Now, unless pressure from civil society and threats of demonstrations all over the country make the government revise its aggressive intentions for the media yet again, all present media laws (of which there are a good half-dozen) will be repealed to make way for the said ordinance, headed by a grade-22 bureaucrat and complete with media tribunals empowered to enforce jail sentences up to three years and Rs25 million in fines just in case anybody violates any of the new provisions. All this is a far stretch from the promises Prime Minister Imran Khan made when he was still on the campaign trail. He was all praise for the media then because the industry played perhaps the biggest role in taking his narrative to the people and mobilising the youth that eventually handed him the premiership. He clearly liked what he saw at the time because without the media to amplify his crusade against corruption, which resonated with so many Pakistanis, his message of accountability would have simply got lost in all the usual noise of politics.

But now that the shoe is on the other foot and he finds the same media criticising his own administration’s utter ineffectiveness in the face of the country’s growing problems, it is unfortunate as well as unfair that the ruling party is unwilling to apply the same standards to itself as it did to its opponents and instead of falling in line and addressing urgent issues to the satisfaction of the people, it seems to prefer to silence any and all attempts to put the spotlight on them. This is, in simple words, nothing more than the old fashioned ‘gagging the press’ being played out. And its timing ought to raise a number of very serious questions since it is happening just when there has been a very concerning increase in attacks on and abductions of journalists.

This newspaper has always been against any sort of special laws for the media since the beginning in favour of the straightforward argument that the law of the land, as it is, should apply to this sector as well. Surely, it’s too late in the day to explain the simple and internationally accepted logic behind the argument that special laws for what amounts to being the ‘fourth pillar of state’ invariably runs into conflict-of-interest issues whenever fingers are pointed to the state, and the only thing you have at the end of the day is a formal censorship regime. It is precisely because of selective application of such harsh and unacceptable laws, after all, that countries like India and Israel are able to muzzle the press about what they really do in the territories they occupy.

If, as PM Imran Khan has often boasted, the government really has nothing to hide and it wants people to see things as they are, then why must it bend over backwards to control the flow of news and information in this country? Industry and society stakeholders are now justified in claiming that the government wants a monopoly over the information that comes out about it, which betrays mala fide intentions. It is also true that such steps will only further isolate the government and make things difficult for it when time comes for the next election. First, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) alienated the entire opposition, making it impossible to pass any bills through parliament. Now it is openly trying to stifle the media, which nobody is going to accept. So, either the government will wisely back down, like it did a number of times over the last two years when it tried other ways of controlling the press, or it will have to take responsibility for what is going to be a very serious confrontation with civil society; with the media in the lead. A “media martial law” can never work in a progressive democracy and it must not be allowed in Pakistan.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021