Journalists' bodies decry proposal for new media courts as Pakistan government denies muzzling press

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan poses for a photograph with Pakistani television anchors after a group interview in Islamabad on December 3, 2018 (Photo courtesy anchor Saadia Afzaal's twitter account)
Updated 28 July 2019

Journalists' bodies decry proposal for new media courts as Pakistan government denies muzzling press

  • Special courts will resolve disputes of investors, licensees, end-users, according to document seen exclusively by Arab News
  • Chairman Pakistan Broadcasters Association says body has “outrightly rejected” the proposal

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan government has proposed setting up ‘special tribunals’ for what it says will be the ‘speedy’ resolution of disputes related to electronic media, the draft of a policy seen by Arab News shows, raising fears among both journalists and media associations that the new courts will be used to curb press freedoms and pressurize television channels through the threat of litigation.
Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power last year promising media freedom but his government is now widely criticized for censoring critical voices in journalism, civil society, and the political opposition. 
Earlier this month, three Pakistani television channels were suspended from cable networks allegedly for broadcasting rallies held by opposition leaders. Last week, the country’s most popular news channel, the privately-owned Geo News broadcaster, was forced off the air in many parts of the country or had its channel number abruptly changed.
According to the draft of a new proposal seen exclusively by Arab News, the government wants to set up special courts where media-related disputes of investors, licensees, subscribers, and end-users can be settled. 

Draft of the media courts proposal obtained exclusively by Arab News:

“The timely settlement of disputes in the broadcasting/electronic media sector is important to all stakeholders involved,” the draft said.
Pakistan’s information ministry declined to comment for this article but Ahmad Jawad, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party’s secretary information said the “purpose of the special courts is to facilitate journalists and media organizations to get their long-pending cases resolved at the earliest.”
“This is for the betterment of the media industry and journalists,” Jawad told Arab News. “Our party and government cannot even think of putting curbs on media and journalists. Our party strongly believes in press freedom and freedom of expression and we will continue to protect it.”
As many as 324 cases of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) are pending with the Sindh, Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar high courts as well as the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the proposal for the special tribunals said.
“Some of these cases are pending adjudication for years while in the majority of the cases the courts have granted stay orders without even hearing the stance of PEMRA,” the draft said. “The stay orders have been filed for years in some cases. This has resulted in billions of rupees of revenue being stuck up.”
The draft also said the high and supreme courts lacked expertise on broadcasting matters and electronic media “at the bench level,” which led to delayed litigation and stay orders that lasted years. 
“It has also been observed that some media houses … routinely employ judicial intervention which has resulted in complete regulatory & administrative paralysis for the regulator i.e. PEMRA,” the draft said. 
Using the examples of India, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, the policy document said: “since the 1970s, there has been an increasing focus on alternative dispute resolution (ADR), such as negotiation, mediation, and arbitration to resolve disputes.”
“The processes followed under ADR are seen as confidential, time-sensitive and conducive to maintaining long-term commercial relationships,” the document said. “The merit of ADR methods lies in the flexibility of their use as complements either to the court-based or regulatory-based adjudication or as a stand-alone measure.”
Along similar lines to banking tribunals that already exist in Pakistan, the draft said: “It is proposed that to settle disputes in the electronic media sector expeditiously and dispose of the pending litigation of PEMRA, the Authority may like to forward a case to the Federal Government for constitution of Special Tribunals with Judges having requisite expertise of the electronic media for dealing with litigation of the Electronic Media Sectors.”
The draft does not mention what exact powers the new media courts would have, whether decisions taken by them could be appealed in higher courts, or if the proceedings would be public or not. However, if the model being followed is that of banking tribunals, then such courts exercise all powers in their civil and criminal jurisdictions.
The Pakistan government denies it is muzzling the media or putting into place new measures to hike censorship. Speaking to media last week, de facto information minister Firdaus Ashiq Awan assured journalists that any new policy would ensure the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders. 
However, organizations representing journalists and media houses have unanimously rejected the new plan.
“We have outrightly rejected the government’s suggestion of establishing media courts,” Shakeel Masud Hussain, Chairman Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) told Arab News. Hussain said he had seen a draft of the proposal and “on the face of it, it is unacceptable.”
In a statement released on Friday, PBA asked the government to “immediately abandon the ill-conceived and ill-advised proposal” as the country already had laws, courts and regulatory authorities such as PEMRA to deal with media-related matters
Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, also said the proposal reflected the government’s efforts to “muzzle freedom of expression” through litigation in the courts.
“We condemn this move as this will burden the media houses with cases in the courts and result in blackmail not only by the government but also by other institutions and influential forces,” he told Arab News.
Iqbal Khattak, Pakistan’s country representative for Reporters Sans Frontieres, said the government should first establish special courts to end impunity for crimes against journalists given that 127 Pakistani journalists had been killed since 2002.
“It is very worrying that this government has floated the proposal [of setting up media courts] without discussing it with relevant stakeholders,” he told Arab News. “It seems as if the government wants to flood the special courts with cases against media houses to keep them subservient and ensure complete censorship of dissenting voices.”


 


Critics cry foul as Pakistan looks to curb coronavirus 'fake news' on social media

Updated 8 sec ago

Critics cry foul as Pakistan looks to curb coronavirus 'fake news' on social media

  • Government sets up committee to prepare new “legal framework” to tackle coronavirus-related misinformation
  • Rights activists fear the new laws will be used to choke freedom of speech

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister said on Thursday the government planned to introduce new laws to curb coronavirus misinformation on social media platforms in a move that has stoked fears authorities will use the additional powers to choke freedom of speech and chill dissent.
On Wednesday, the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), a top federal body set up to oversee the government’s coronavirus mitigation efforts, set up a committee under the chairmanship of the interior minister to prepare a legal framework to help the government deal with coronavirus-related “fake news” on social media platforms.
Islamabad has previously struggled to regulate online content mostly by blocking or asking social media companies to remove blasphemous material and other posts that violate the country’s religious and cultural norms and laws or hurt national security interests.
In February, the government approved, and then rolled back, new rules to regulate cyberspace after opponents said they could be used to stifle dissent. Social media companies have also largely shunned obliging to help law enforcement agencies access data and remove online content deemed unlawful.
“Is the government a fool?” the interior minister said to Arab News on Thursday when asked if the NCOC had set up the new committee on the pretext of curtailing free speech or criticism of the government’s coronavirus mitigation policies. “If somebody asks me to suppress social media, I’ll straightaway say that I can’t do it.”
However, he said, the government was resolved to find ways to prevent the flow of false information regarding the pandemic.
These efforts, rights activists say, would allow the government to use the pandemic as an “excuse” to suppress freedom of speech.
“Social media companies have themselves been taking down disinformation and propaganda regarding COVID-19 since such posts go against their community standards,” Usama Khilji, director of Pakistani digital rights group Bolo Bhi, told Arab News, urging the government to improve coordination with social media giants like Twitter and Facebook in order to have inaccurate information removed instead of enacting new “draconian rules.”
Last month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued an advisory to local media houses instructing them not to air coronavirus-related content that was “not based on ground realities” and was likely to create “unnecessary panic.” 
The advisory was seen as a warning to critics of the government’s efforts to fight growing rates of infection.
“If the government wants to counter online disinformation, it can do it by releasing authentic information instead of coercing journalists and media houses,” Iqbal Khattak, who represents Reporters Without Borders in Pakistan, told Arab News. “It must immediately drop its plan to enact new social media rules since we already know its objective is to undermine freedom of expression.”