Pakistan’s proposed media law: A threat to the freedom of the press

Earlier this September, Pakistani media workers - including journalists, bloggers, vloggers and editors of newspapers and TV channels - boycotted the joint session of the Parliament in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, where the new law curbing freedom of the press would be discussed.

A day before the President’s mandatory speech to the joint sitting of the two-house of the Pakistani Parliament, a large number of journalists from across the country had gathered in Islamabad to register their protest against the present government’s plan to introduce a new law to curb freedom of the press by establishing the government-controlled Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA).

Zulfiqar Shah is a human rights and labour rights expert based in Karachi, and NHRF's local consultant in Pakistan.

The proposed law is feared to repeal the existing media legal framework and establish a new regulatory authority, the PMDA. This new government watchdog would have the powers to shutter media organizations and envisions the establishment of special tribunals to penalize journalists and media outlets for "defaming" military generals, judges, and government leaders. Media persons consider the new piece of legislation as a step towards further curbing the media and fundamental right of freedom of expression in Pakistan, which is already undermined due to the restrictive government policies and strong censorship over the media.

"The proposed law is feared to repeal the existing media legal framework and establish a new regulatory authority, the PMDA. This new government watchdog would have the powers to shutter media organizations and envisions the establishment of special tribunals to penalize journalists and media outlets for "defaming" military generals, judges, and government leaders." Zulfiqar Shah

“The government through the (proposed) PMDA is trying to impose a ‘media martial law’ which is unacceptable,” said Afzal Butt, President of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). “We will continue to resists unless the plan is completely shelved,” he announced.

Opposition parties have expressed their solidarity with the media persons during the protest. Opposition politicians, including former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and others, visited the protesting camp of journalists outside the Parliament House. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also expressed serious concern over the proposed law, which, according to it will further stifle freedom of expression under the current regime.

In 2020, Pakistan's press freedom ranking had further dropped to 145 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index maintained and published by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), an international non-governmental organization working for the safeguarding of the freedom of information. The Pakistan Freedom of Expression Report 2020, published by the Media Matters for Democracy, has put Pakistan in the range of “poor” protections for freedom of expression in the country. The report found that during the year 2020, Pakistan’s media and internet regulatory authorities continued to exert arbitrary legal and regulatory restrictions on speech and online content, by ordering bans, suspensions, and advisories against social media apps, entertainment content, and news discussions of social and political issues.

Pakistan's global indices ranks have been declining for several years on the issues like killings of journalists, restrictions imposed on news media, withdrawal of the government ads, harassment, violation of independent journalism, detention, abduction, and frivolous lawsuits against the journalists.

“The government through the (proposed) PMDA is trying to impose a ‘media martial law’ which is unacceptable. We will continue to resists unless the plan is completely shelved” Afzal Butt, President of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ)
“Journalists are frontline human rights defenders and the government must ensure their security instead of imposing more restrictions on their work. (...) Freedom of expression is fundamental right guaranteed by Pakistan constitution and UN conventions and must be respected, Tanveer Jehan, Coordinator of the Pakistan Human Rights Defenders Network

In the recent past a number of journalists were abducted in broad daylight in Islamabad, a highly-guarded with surveillance cameras capital of Pakistan, allegedly by the state’s security agencies. Pakistani media has been facing state coercion as hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs and others are facing economic hardship as their news organisations have cut their salaries and allowances due to financial losses because of the government policies.

“Journalists are frontline human rights defenders and the government must ensure their security instead of imposing more restrictions on their work,” says Tanveer Jehan, Coordinator of the Pakistan Human Rights Defenders Network. “Freedom of expression is fundamental right guaranteed by Pakistan constitution and UN conventions and must be respected,” she added.

Given that the proposed law has been unanimously rejected by all media organizations and journalists’ associations in Pakistan as well as their international affiliates, the opposition parties, civil society and lawyers’ association, the federal government should shelve the proposal once and for all. In the future, any such proposal must be developed in a consultative manner while taking into confidence the key stakeholders and while keeping in mind the freedom of press related national and international legal obligations.

The NHRF invites different actors within the human rights field to contribute on this blog. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors

Photo 1 and 4: From a previous protest for freedom of the media.

Photo 2: Political leaders and others at the media protest site.

Photo 3: Media persons marching towards the Parliament.