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EDITORIAL: Surely, there's no way that the government didn't know that nobody, the press or civil society, would ever accept its smart idea of establishing the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) by merging all existing regulators and repealing all major media-related legislation. The best nugget in this novelty is not that the Authority would be headed by a grade-22 bureaucrat, but that it would come complete with tribunals and commissions intended to keep the entire industry in line, so to speak. And now that everybody has flatly rejected the PMDA, and all that has been achieved is uniting opposition political parties and civil society and the media on a joint platform to protect freedom of expression, one can only wonder if somebody in Islamabad is asking whether it was wise to open this particular can of worms at this particular time.

This newspaper has long held the position that there should be no special laws for the media because the law of the land, as it is, should also apply to this sector. And it's not considered a good idea for the government to step into the media space anywhere in the advanced world, just like its presence in the marketplace is never welcome, because such things stem from or can lead to conflicts of interest more often than not. Isn't it quite ironic that at the same time that all media and civil society outlets were condemning and rejecting the proposed Authority, the Supreme Court in Islamabad also had its hands full with a case regarding harassment of journalists by the state? The interior secretary, FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) director general, and Islamabad's police chief were told in no uncertain terms by a two-judge SC bench that the court regretted that the FIA appeared to have overstepped its mandate and undermined the nation's confidence in the judiciary.

All things considered, it's a shame for this administration in particular to want to adopt such tactics. PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) might not have existed as we know it today, and definitely would not have risen to power, if not for the extraordinary tail wind provided by popular and social media. Those were also the times when Imran Khan led the PTI leadership's chorus of praise and support for the media, and wouldn't tire of enlightening everybody about the centrality of a free press in a functioning, progressive democracy. Yet it wasn't long after winning the election that the entire PTI leadership, especially PM Imran Khan, made it something of a mission to gag the press. They tried to bully social media giants by ordering them to set up shop and place their servers here and only backed down when Big Tech threatened to pack up and leave this place lock, stock and barrel. They have also tried to control online flow of information and they are clearly obsessed with having the power to punish whomever they like in the media.

But now that there's very stiff resistance the only options the government has left is either to press on with force, and force the media into submission by slapping fines and making examples of a few outlets, or backing down. The timing is not very nice at all for the former because the election is not very far away and it's not a very smart idea to be on the wrong side of the media at such a sensitive time. The latter, unfortunately for the government, isn't a much better option because that way the government will approach the election with the air taken out of its balloon. Already, unnecessarily locking horns with the fourth pillar of state has created needless risks for the government; which will go into the election either on the back foot or with a red nose.

Hopefully, better sense will still prevail and the government will restrict itself to its constitutional limits and let other organs of the state get on with their jobs as well.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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