Open reforms through closing spaces

Open reforms through closing spaces

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In its first six months in office, the new Imran Khan government has been shaping up and sharpening its five-year governance agenda which places radical political and social reforms at its heart.

But the federal cabinet has made a puzzling move with the creation of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA). The new authority proposes to merge Pakistan’s three separate regulatory authorities for print, electronic and online media into one to become a single mammoth enforcement mechanism. Many voices, including journalists and representative associations of media stakeholders, see the PMRA proposal as a camouflaged attempt to expand the undeclared censorship regime to online spaces to blunt critical reporting and analysis.

The initiative has created an uproar among principal stakeholders. What does the government want to accomplish with the proposed PMRA? And what effect will it have on the media landscape and the discourse of reforms?

It can be assumed that for Khan and his party, it is difficult to shift from being media darlings in the opposition to being held accountable on a daily basis and explaining the underwhelming first tenth of their tenure in terms of governance performance. The media has grown critical and the government has been largely ham-fisted in its response to them. Nearly every week, a PTI minister gets into a mud-slinging match with the media.

The media’s grievances also stem from a huge financial hit. Pakistan’s government has always been the major advertiser with local media and in contrast with the previous administration, Khan’s party has slashed its advertising budget by billions of rupees. In key part, this has created a financial crisis for the media industry, resulting in over 2,000 journalists being sacked, thousands getting steep pay cuts and many others facing long delays in the payment of salaries over the last six months. Some TV channels and newspapers have simply shut down.

The rise in censorship after the establishment of PMRA has driven angry criticism in Pakistan’s noisy online spaces. Similarly, the All Pakistan Newspaper Society, the Council of Pakistani Newspaper Editors, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Press Council of Pakistan (the print media regulator) have all put out strong official statements rejecting the proposed formation of a single body and threatened protests. They argue that the crowding out of media sector representatives from the proposed PMRA board and their replacement with government officials smacks of an enforcement regime meant to control the media rather than facilitate it.

The Pakistani media may be guilty of a culture of noisy real-time criticism that often borders on hostility, but will PMRA in its present form be accepted and pass in parliament?

Adnan Rehmat

That is not all. Currently, TV channels and radio stations get licenses for five years while newspapers are not subjected to a centralized registration. The draft PMRA bill, already rejected by most stakeholders, proposes to force newspapers, TV channels and radio stations into renewing licenses annually. This is seen as powerful leverage to coerce the media into submission to state fiat. 

The PMRA also seeks to regulate online media which currently does not require official permission to operate.

The Pakistani media may be guilty of a culture of noisy real-time criticism that often borders on hostility, but will PMRA in its present form be accepted and pass in parliament?

The government does not currently have the numbers in parliament to pass laws without the help of one of the two key opposition parties. The opposition, itself browbeaten into a political corner by an unusually coercive government seeking to disqualify its key leaders, is in no mood to help. And the media, smarting from a financial squeeze imposed by the government and fighting a climate of censorship, cannot afford to lose this battle.             

The proposed PMRA may or may not materialize but it has already exposed, if not hurt, the fragile media landscape. Any weakening of this landscape and an enforcement encirclement of the online spaces will only hurt Pakistan’s professed democratic aspirations and limit its pluralism. Curbing the space for an inclusive discourse is a strange way to attempt popular reforms. The jury is out.

• Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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