Let the media self-regulate

Govts having worst track record in terms of imposing "gag laws" are undoubtedly led by PML-N

Mazhar Abbas
Let the media self-regulate
This is a representational image of journalists taking picture. — Reuters/File 

After the independence in 1947, the first thing the ruling elite did was set in stone the tyrannical feudalistic politics they were used to before it, following in the footsteps of the oppressive colonial rulers. Therefore, the laws that had been governing the press in the pre-independence era found their way into the body politics of the newly independent and sovereign country. All the colonial era media laws used to control or gag the press were retained and since then 95% of the press-related legislations passed post-independence have been, "anti-freedom of the press and expression."

Thus, in the past 76 years, successive governments, whether civilian or military introduced the "laws that chain the media" and there are hardly any exceptions. However, the governments having the worst track record in terms of imposing "gag laws" are undoubtedly led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — the party that has come to power for the fifth time.

The PML-N has since followed the policy of "carrot and stick" when it comes to media whether it’s print, electronic, or digital. So, the latest move — whether in the form of the Media Regulatory Authority or amendments to the Defamation Ordinance, 2002 — hardly surprised me. Why? Because it is just an extension of laws like the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, passed during the party's previous government. Ironically, the PML-N leadership should be given credit for not taking any "U-turn" on its "anti-media" stance.

In the past, the party has been accused of "appeasing" the media after using the "stick" to gag it. In 1997, Saifur Rehman, former chairman of the Ehtesab Bureau, allegedly gave orders to the agencies to "tap the telephones" of leading editors and journalists particularly those working in the Daily Jang and The News but all such moves were fiercely resisted by the stakeholders led by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), which was a united force then.

Pakistan’s English daily, DAWN, also became the target of the third PML-N government after "DAWN leaks." The issue spiraled out to the extent that the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif also sacked two of his close associates, Pervez Rasheed and Tariq Fatmi. The English daily incurred the wrath of the state for exercising its right to freedom of expression.

It was also during the PML-N’s third government that PECA, 2016, was passed, which allowed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to take action against rights activists and journalists in the name of prevention of "electronic crimes." Several rights activists and journalists were also arrested or booked under PECA.

Three-time prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and two-time premier, Shehbaz Sharif never came up with laws protecting :freedom of the press" and "freedom of expression." On the contrary, they did the opposite. And when they did not have any direct hand in such actions they shook the hands that strangled the media.

Political parties never get tired of blaming the media for spreading disinformation or fake news. It goes without saying that in the age of digital media, given the immense outreach and vast audience, this fake news phenomenon has kicked up some seriously negative trends. However, the solution to this problem is not "Black Laws". What about the state-owned media and the kind of disinformation the Ministry of Information spreads? PFUJ, in 2008, on the eve of the International Media Summit, introduced a comprehensive "Media Complaints Commission" draft to the then federal information minister, Sherry Rehman during the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government. Not much has been done since then.

Again in 2011, the Supreme Court in Hamid Mir and Absar Alam vs Federation of Pakistan — a case in which some other journalists also became party — constituted a two-member commission comprising Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid and former information minister Javed Jabbar to suggest means and ways to address the issues and it also recommended media commission.

Thus, the media stakeholders on their part always wanted to ensure ethical journalism and also to have checks in place without compromising the freedom of the press. However, successive governments ignored rational suggestions and always went for the persecution of journalists and media.

Following its return to power again in the backdrop of the controversial February 8, elections the PML-N government intends to tighten its grip on the media in the name of "ethical journalism" and "regulations". They also seem to be in a hurry as both the federal government headed by PM Shehbaz and Punjab Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz’s government introduced two bills respectively linked to media regulations. The truth is they are only an attempt to restrict if not completely control of the media.

The dilemma with the mainstream political parties in general over the decades has been that the laws they often introduced or inducted during their governments often were used against them when in opposition.

The recent Punjab Defamation Bill, 2024, on the face of it, looked "media-specific," with some amendments in the Musharraf regime’s Defamation Bill, 2002. All the media stakeholders have rejected the bill and termed it, "unacceptable." However, despite strong reactions from the journalists, editors and media owners the Punjab Assembly passed the bill amid opposition and journalist’s boycott from the assembly.

The very concept of "Special Tribunals” to prosecute journalists, editors, and owners under the bill reminded me of the proposed Pakistan Media Authority, moved under the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and initiated by then-PTI’s information minister, Fawad Choudhry. The PTI, government's move to merge PECA, PEMRA, Press Council and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) under one umbrella controlled by the government was again a dangerous move and in the end, they withdrew. Had that move succeeded, the PTI would have been the worst victim, today. Same stands for PML-N and if the present Defamation Law, 2024, or Media Regulatory Authority are established they will be the worst victim when in opposition.

Freedom of expression is, and must remain, our cherished right because without it the media cannot perform their duties adequately. A responsible media cannot exist until it is allowed "self-regulation" and is free of executive’s interference.

The media persons must unite, rebuild the institution of professional editors and act more responsibly than ever before if we want to achieve this treasured goal of "freedom of the media" and "freedom of expression" with professional responsibility.

Fake news syndrome can only be defeated with facts and factual news. Criticism is the essence of democracy and we must protect the voice of dissent.

The writer is an analyst and columnist for GEO, Jang and The News. X/@Mazhar.AbbasGEO

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this piece are the writer's own and don't necessarily reflect Geo.tv's editorial policy.