There should be no doubt that the Pakistani media is facing many grave threats and problems in the PTI government. The government is taking pains to curtail the media’s freedom through threats, financial restrictions and hard laws. On the other hand, the media is fighting hard to survive and maintain its freedom in the testing time.
History tells us that not only autocratic civil-military regimes have tried to control, intimidate, pressurize, harass and manage the media by enacting draconian press laws but also terrorists, extremists and militants, like the TTP etc., have used violence against it for stopping it to perform its professional duties.
The Press and Publication Ordinance (PPO), 1962, Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Services) Act, 1973, Press Council Ordinance, 2002, Press, Newspaper, News Agencies and Books Registration (PNNBR) Ordinance, 2002, Defamation Ordinance, 2002 and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002 etc, have been used by autocratic regimes to enchain the media.
In short, it can be asserted that over the last seven decades, journalists have suffered fines, faced imprisonment, tolerated torture and disappearances. Even many journalists have been assassinated.
According to the UNESCO observatory, journalists Muhammad Bilal Khan, Ali Sher Rajpar and Malik Amanullah Khan were killed in 2019. Another journalist, Mureed Abbas, was gunned down in July 2019. While, five journalists, Noorul Hassan, Sohail Khan, Abid Hussain, Zeeshan Ashraf Butt and Anjum Munir Raja, were killed in 2018, Haroon Khan, Baksheesh Elahi, Taimur Abbas and Muhammad Jan in 2017, Mehmood Khan, Shehzad Ahmed, Khurram Zaki and Muhammad Umar in 2016, Hafeezur Rehman, Zaman Mehsud, Aftab Alam and Arshad Ali Jaffari in 2015, Ashraf Yusuf, Khalid Khan, Waqas Aziz Khan and Zakir Ali (aka Shan Odhor) in 2014, Ayub Khan Khattak, Haji Abdul Razzak Baloch, Ahmed Ali Joiya, Mehmood Jan Afridi, Malik Mumtaz, Imran Shaikh, Mohammad Iqbal and Saif-ur-Rehman in 2013. Saqib Khan, Rehmatullah Abid, Mushtaq Khand, Abdul Khaliq (aka Abdul Haq Baloch), Abdul Qadir Hajizai, Abdul Razaq Gul, Aurengzeb Tunio, Tariq Kamal, Murtaza Razvi, and Mukarram Khan Aatif were killed in 2012, Faisal Qureshi, Munir Shakar, Nasrullah Afridi, Abdost Rind and Ilyas Nizzar in 2011 and Ashiq Ali Mangi, Ghulam Rasool Birhamani, Ejazul Haq, Faiz Mohammad Khan Sasoli, Muhammad Khan Sasoli, Abdul Wahab, Altaf Chandio, Pervez Khan, Abdul Hameed Hayatan (aka Lala Hameed Baloch), Mujeebur Rehman Saddiqui and Misri Khan Orakzai were killed in 2010. In short, 59 journalists have sacrificed their lives while performing their duties since 2010 in Pakistan.
Sadly, not a single assailant or perpetrator has been arrested. Due to the precarious situation, it has been declared that Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. According to RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries.
However, everything is subject to change. New inventions in the realm of communication have brought about new changes in journalism as well. The number of private TV channels has increased in Pakistan. New modes of social media, like Google, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc., have expanded the scope for freedom of expression significantly. In consequence, the state is also trying to crush freedom of expression by introducing the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance 2021.
The PMDA has the following characteristics: “This will be a new statutory institution established to regulate films, electronic, print and digital media in Pakistan in the age of metadata, digital and social media, and internet-based content and advertisements,” the proposal reads.
After the introduction of the PMDA, all previous laws for media control and regulation will likely be abolished. The PMDA can without notice order the seizure of equipment at a television station or the sealing of a media outlet’s premises. Without issuing a “show-cause notice” and affording an opportunity of hearing, the PMDA can stop any person, print media, electronic media or digital media service operator from operating. It can put a person in prison for three years. A person can be fined extending to Rs25m. The federal government would establish a tribunal to hear appeals. The Supreme Court could only question the legality of any step taken under the ordinance. Along with licences, there will also be NOCs to be renewed periodically.
All the points clearly show that the PMDA, a draconian law, will be used to silence all critical voices from the media, including print and social media. Media organisations have unanimously rejected the proposed legislation. They have called it unconstitutional and an extension of Gen Ayub Khan’s infamous Press and Publications Ordinance 1963. “It has no place in a democratically elected dispensation,” reads their joint statement. If the PMDA is enacted, it will be a sheer violation of the constitution and democracy. The government should also know that it cannot erase all critical voices from the media because there are many brave journalists, who are ready to sacrifice everything for upholding the truth and performing their noble duties.
A local magazine states: “When any state hounds its citizens to the wall, it should expect at least some of them to lash out in desperation, sooner or later, to defend their rights. In other words, when free speech is gagged, one important safety valve in democracy is closed to pent-up emotional and political pressure. The nature of conflict also tends to acquire a personal tone in which the oppressed is not scared of naming the oppressor and discrediting the state institution which is represented. This is what is happening now with state institutions and their leaders in the hybrid system increasingly being exposed in the public imagination. Angry media spokespersons talk openly about culpable state organs and are quick to name names”.