Speech and censorship

PAKISTAN’S ranking fell a further 12 places on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index released earlier this month. This has to be a point of introspection for Pakistanis, especially those who wield power in the civil-military bureaucracy as well as political leaders in the recent merry-go-round of governments.

The state of the press during the rule of the PTI was dismal, to put it mildly. Attacking journalists with impunity was routine; legal proposals such as the PMDA Ordinance and Peca Amendment Ordinance were draconian in content; and the online disinformation and hate campaigns egged on by the PTI’s official accounts as well as its leaders were condemnable.

The only good move was the National Assembly’s passage of the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals’ Act, 2021. The bill had been put forward by the Ministry of Human Rights, which had held consultations with media stakeholders. However, it was countered by draconian measures through ordinances that put into question the overall intent of the government, especially the former law ministry.

The positive part was the vocal condemnation of these measures by opposition parties that form the government now. They engaged with civil society and the media and invoked the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution in their speeches, press releases, parliamentary engagements as well as on social media.

It is now time for the self-described national government, especially the PML-N and PPP, to walk the talk.

It is time for the government to walk the talk and show that it supports media freedom.

The attempts by the deep state to bring back draconian legal instruments that the Islamabad High Court had struck down in February are clear. The FIA has been persistent in its demand for more powers to take action under the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. This was obvious in the surprise appeal from the FIA in the Supreme Court against the Islamabad High Court order quashing the Peca Amendment Ordinance and the criminal defamation clause of Peca 2016.

However, the coalition government was quick to instruct the FIA to take back the appeal and assert its authority over the investigation agency, with Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb swiftly issuing a statement reaffirming the government’s commitment to not appeal the IHC judgement. Such steps are encouraging, and perhaps indicate that the PML-N is learning from its mistake of not conducting meaningful stakeholder consultations when it first promulgated Peca in 2015/2016.

What is still awaited is consistent biannual reporting on the progress made on the implementation of Peca by the FIA to parliament. This reporting has apparently taken place three times despite six years having passed since the law came into effect. There should have been at least 11 progress reports by now. If the FIA has the resources and time to challenge a high court decision on Peca in the Supreme Court, perhaps it should also have the capacity to submit the reports to parliament that it is bound to do under the law. Perhaps further amendments to the law should also include penalties for the FIA in case of failure to fulfil its duty of reporting to parliament. The oversight of civilian and military agencies is critical for there to be democratic accountability.

The next challenge is the welcome decision by the Islamabad High Court to suspend social media rules and recommend to parliament to revisit Section 37 of Peca as well as the rules under it that were promulgated by the PTI-led government. The rules were prima facie unconstitutional. They went beyond the ambit of what the primary Peca legislation required. They empowered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority disproportionately by assigning to it the role of judge, jury and executioner, and gave it unnecessary and overbroad powers of censorship whereby it could censor a vast range of content under very vague definitions that could be excessively abused. The abuse was already apparent in the transparency reports of social media companies in terms of censorship requests sent by the PTA.

During the past two months, the PTA has also been exerting undue pressure on social media companies to open up local offices in Pakistan, which is clearly intentioned to be a way through which maximum pressure can be exerted on social media companies to censor content on platforms the state finds ‘objectionable’. It is also important to notice the consistent kind of pressure for censorship from the state despite the change in government, and perhaps advantage being taken of the power vacuum created by the transition of government.

There have also been troubling measures taken by the state related to the media and political parties amidst PTI’s attempts to march to the capital against what it sees as collusion between the establishment and the new government led by the PML-N.

A game of musical chairs appears to be going on, not only with respect to political parties wanting to gain the favour of the establishment, but also media groups that are critical of the political party in power. Geo was relegated to virtually last position in the channel lists when the PTI was in power, and now ARY is facing a similar dilemma.

Cases have been registered against journalists who are critical of the state; several journalists were taken off air when the PTI was in power for being critical of the state, while some were temporarily ‘disappeared’ and several activists and journalists forced into exile.

There is also confusion as to who is calling the shots: is it the establishment or the current civilian set-up? Are civilian law-enforcement institutions being used by the establishment to cover up its persecution of critics, or is the PML-N-led government leading this exercise in harassment? Who is directing the cable operators? Who is leading the blockading of protest routes? There is only one beneficiary of this confusion — and it is not the civilian political parties that must draw collective red lines on engagement with the establishment.

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