As things stand, the media tribunals announced by the government may not come to fruition any time soon. The announcement may well have been put out as a feeler to gauge public reaction. The reaction was not just prompt, it was collective and categorically dismissive of the announcement.
The special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, first articulated the suggestion for media courts in July this year following what she claimed was a discussion with Pakistan Broadcasters’ Association (PBA). It did create a stir among journalists’ bodies which disapproved of such a move. The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), said in a statement that “in the presence of dispute and complaints resolution forums like Press Council of Pakistan and Pemra [Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority] there is no justification to form special courts for media”. The move it said was tantamount to imposing “undeclared censorship”.
On September 17, Dr Awan came out of a cabinet meeting to announce that the cabinet had approved the setting up of media tribunals. The government had decided to set up speedy tribunals which would decide all media related matters, old and new, within 90 days, she said. The minister also said a bill would soon be tabled in the parliament to formalise the idea by turning it into a law. In the little that she talked about the tribunals, it appeared that the government was concerned about the media’s tendency to defame government functionaries; so here was a solution.
Since this was only a vague articulation of the scope of media tribunals about which no stakeholder was taken on board, this time all media-related bodies, unions and owners, civil society organisations and even political parties in the opposition, strongly opposed such a discriminatory legislation and special courts for the media.
Why such strong reaction, one may ask?
One, it has been consistent state policy since independence to suppress freedom of expression. Successive governments, be they dictatorships or democracies, have introduced laws that have aimed to muzzle the press in the name of national security, in a bid to fulfil the state’s vision of creating a “unitary outlook” and a conformist society. In fact, senior journalist Mazhar Abbas said in a television talk show that except for one law — the Newspapers Employees (Conditions of Service Act, 1973) that set up the wage board — all other media laws in Pakistan have been aimed at suppressing journalists and their freedoms.
Two, apart from the political environment that never looked too kindly at media freedoms, this is a particularly gloomy time for media. The curse of censorship has not just undermined its role as the fourth pillar of the state and its significance for democracy, it has also affected its potential as an industry. Journalists are losing jobs, there is advertising blackmail used against media groups and the survival of the industry is in danger. Not all of it is happening through legal means; there is much that owes itself to strong-arm tactics of state institutions that would do all they can to financially hurt especially big media groups to have their way.
Unfortunately, the red lines for the media have continued to grow over the years. The mainstream media has accepted certain ‘no-go areas’ for a long time — the woes of the marginalised communities in smaller provinces and tribal areas in particular — but, post 2013, newspapers, television and radio channels, websites and social media accounts and bloggers have been penalised like never before. The position of TV channels was changed on the cable operator’s bouquet, their transmission was brought to a halt, and lately certain newspapers have not been allowed to be distributed in cantonments. The websites of international media have stayed blocked as well. Even lay readers can detect a degree of dilution in their content.
The present government, has, only made the matters worse. Not only did it let the illegalities and high-handedness of unelected forces continue uncontested, it used all available avenues to silence its critics and political opponents. Now even the interview of a former president of the country and the rallies of opposition leaders are taken off air, creating a climate of extreme fear and self-censorship. The former federal minister for information, Fawad Chaudhry under this government had, in his time, hinted at one regulator for all media — print, broadcast, social, digital everything.
Ill-advised and undesirable as this suggestion was, the government refused to learn its lesson and has now proposed speedy media tribunals. Even though no one really knows what the tribunals would actually look like and do, the assumption is that these will be a tool in the hands of the government to gag independent voices in the media. In a little over a year in office, this government has managed to tarnish its image with respect to press freedoms. The prime minister has had to face some difficult questions abroad regarding media. Pakistan has been ranked 142nd as per the World Press Freedom Index 2019, according to Reporters Without Borders, down from 139th in 2018.
True that all is not well with Pakistani media: the professional standards are slack; there is little done by way of self-regulation or accountability; and the operational complaints mechanism are ineffective, be it Pemra, Press Council of Pakistan (the print media regulator) or ordinary courts hearing defamation cases. But media tribunals unilaterally proposed by the government are a non-starter. No wonder they look so dead for now.
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) had, after an international media summit, proposed the idea of a Media Complaints Commission in 2008, to be headed by a superior court judge, with limited representation of the media. Perhaps, it’s time to dust the draft, re-read it and present it to all concerned.