Media ‘martial law’ will majorly set Pakistan back
The Pakistan government has kicked up a storm over a new plan to rein in the media, particularly freedom of expression in the digital realm, by proposing highly centralized new regulations and expanding its existing coercive censorship regime further.
The plan to create the so-called Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) seeks to repeal existing media related laws, merge current regulatory authorities for print and electronic media plus bring the country’s rapidly expanding digital media under greater ‘control’. The authority will expand the current ban on criticism of the military, judiciary and Islam to now include the president, politicians and clerics. It will also establish a media tribunal that will impose heavy fines and jail terms for violations.
Critics say that if pushed through, this new plan will all but end functional democracy in Pakistan by removing the central tenet of a democratic polity: a free media that can hold authority to account. The proposal has been rejected by wide swathes of media, civil society and political spectrums but the government is adamant on pushing through with its intention.
Why the need for this bolt-from-the-blue plan and what consequences does it entail? Apparently, the move is aimed at extending the same levels of censorship on political expression to the Internet space in Pakistan that is now already coercively imposed on the print and electronic media where criticism of the state’s policies and poor performance of the government are muted.
Why now? Elections are due in 2023 but it appears the ruling party and its backers in the state want to control critical public narratives ahead of the polls on what many see is a failed experiment in hybrid democracy over the past three years, where policymaking and executive power is shared by both elected parliament and the deep state.
The mission assigned to the proposed PMDA will end up formalizing focus from regulation of the media industry to regulation of content. This amounts to a fundamental change in duty bearing for the media regulator by weaponizing journalism regulation through $1.5 million fines and three-year jail terms.
The intent to mute free and critical conversations in the Pakistani digital spaces – itself an outcome of the legacy media arm-twisted into non-representative narratives devoid of public interest that have now moved, along with audiences, online – is reflected in the provisions of the proposed new law. Every ‘media’ or ‘journalism’ operation – even individual social media pages or channels on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – will now require periodic licenses to operate and annual ‘no-objection certificates’ to continue.
The mission assigned to the proposed PMDA will end up formalizing focus from regulation of the media industry to regulation of content. This amounts to a fundamental change in duty bearing for the media regulator by weaponizing journalism regulation through $1.5 million fines and three-year jail terms. The law also proposes to expand the censorship regime in the name of banning hate speech by outlawing “undue criticism” of the head of state and parliamentarians, demoralizing the armed forces, and poking fun at religious leaders.
The most insidious aspect of the new law, however, is bringing all citizens into the regulatory ambit of restricted freedom of expression by treating each citizen online as a media publication. From a regulator of journalism to a regulator of every citizen’s right to a free opinion – clearly the new law is aimed at hushing up the free flow of conversation on the Internet.
Critics are right to protest that the proposed new law will serve as a thinly disguised mechanism to centralize media regulation into a one window operation. This would make censorship easier and intimidation smoother and entangle journalists and citizens in costly defense of their opinions rather than exercising their free right to freedom of expression and access to information. It also neatly makes intimidation legal and censorship procedurally coercive.
It is easy to see the insidious intent behind the new proposal as nothing short of dictatorship akin to practices under martial law. Ironically Pakistan has had four bouts of martial law that have governed half of the country’s existence. These, in the past, have brought nothing but misery for the people as well as stunted socio-political development and economic ruin. Another martial law in any other guise will be no different. Not for nothing, many in media and civil society have termed the proposed new plan as a “media martial law.”
The plan to centralize, accentuate and expand media regulations founded on a last-century censorship model is antithetical to Pakistan’s constitutional guarantees and harmful to the democratic aspirations of the people. A civil liberties alliance will have to be created bringing together media, civil society, professional classes and political parties to oppose the thinly disguised attempt to revise Pakistan’s democratic space into an authoritarian and suppressed polity. This should not be Pakistan’s fate.
- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.