This government is set to go down in history as the first to have completed its democratic tenure. This should, in theory, be cause for celebration here in Pakistan. Yet not so for the country’s media.
During the last four years, the electronic media has been under fire, facing severe retribution for daring to broadcast any news deemed to tarnish the image of our boys in khaki. Indeed, bloggers critical of state action have been rounded up, accused and, in some cases, tortured on the grounds of being anti-Pakistan. This is to say nothing of the cyber crime laws that seek to gag freedoms of expression in the personal sphere.
None of this is good news for Pakistan’s long-term democratic health. Yet instead of administering a good dose of media freedom as a much needed antidote — the ruling party has gone the other way. Meaning that it stands accused of gagging the press, a move that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has already warned against.
At the heart of the latest controversy is the Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority (PPMRA) Ordinance 2017. That this has been drawn up by the government — despite initial faltering attempts at back tracking — without building the necessary consensus from media bodies is alarming. And it smacks of a government lacking sufficient confidence in the democratic process it claims to represent. Not to mention those who comprise society’s fourth pillar. Put another way, it suggests a wilful tilt towards autocracy’s embrace.
Copies of the PPMRA Ordinance have found their way to journalist unions nationwide. Among the contentious points is: making it mandatory for publishers to renew licences on yearly basis or else face having declaration of newspapers and periodicals cancelled at will. There is also talk of having the Press Council of Pakistan disbanded. This, of course, is the forum that hears complaints lodged by the journalist community.
We stand with the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) and the Council of Newspaper Editors (CPNE), both of whom have lambasted the government for its secrecy in this regard. It is inconceivable that a democratic nation would envisage sending to Parliament any bill aimed at changing the fundamental way in which the press operates without taking the lead from the media itself.
Elsewhere the government is no doubt patting itself on the back at the current statistics coming out of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA). The latter has noted a marked drop in terrorist incidents in Pakistan for this current year. Yet in the words of a certain famous country singer: that don’t impress us much. For what is gagging the press if not state sanctioned terrorism? No matter how much Marriyum Aurangzeb doth protest.*
Published in Daily Times, September 12th 2017.