Discussing the controversy surrounding the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA)
On August 23rd, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article about proposed legislation by the Pakistani government which would bolster the powers of the government to censor and restrict the media (Gossman, 2021). Since then, human rights activists, together with journalists and political leaders have been attempting to speak out against what has been named the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA). But what is the PMDA, and how would it increase governmental control and censorship?
The PMDA has been conceived as a regulatory body aimed at replacing the current media regulatory environment, which has been described as “fractured” and fragmented” by the government (Khan, 2021). According to HRW, the PMDA will be the only responsible authority for regulating newspapers, television broadcast and digital media in Pakistan (Grossman, 2021). The drafted ordinance aims to abolish all previous laws pertaining to media regulation, replacing them with fresh legal cover for the PMDA and its functions (Khan, 2021). HRW claims that the PMDA law would grant new unchecked powers to the government-controlled regulator, creating special “media tribunals” able to impose steep ﬁnes for media organisations and journalists who violate its code of conduct (Grossman, 2021). Moreover, the government has kept the entire drafting process secret, raising further concern among the media (Grossman, 2021).
The Pakistani Embassy in the US responded to the HRW accusations, and rejected their claims, asserting that the PMDA would ensure freedom, empowerment and development of media in Pakistan (Shah, 2021). Spokesperson Maliha Shahid said in a letter to Patricia Grossman, HRW’s Associated Asia Editor, that there is no plan to introduce the regulatory body through an ordinance, adding that there was the need to introduce holistic policy responses to fake news, hate speech, disinformation. (The News, 2021b). Ms. Grossman responded with a tweet, in which she said: “Wow. You have identiﬁed no inaccuracies in our article and you have failed to provide a draft of the law. What are you hiding? Here is our dispatch.” (The News, 2021b). The ﬁrst formulation of the PMDA was apparently presented in May when President Dr Arif Alvi promulgated the Pakistan Media Development Authority, Ordinance, 2021 (Chakrabarti, 2021).
However, a week later, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting constituted a sub-committee to hold negotiation and regular consultation with journalists bodies (The News, 2021a). During a meeting with Doctor Christian Turner, Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Minister for Information and Broadcasting claimed that PMDA was aimed at ensuring a cohesive approach to media development and eﬃcient management whilst providing a one-window operation to media practitioners and consumers (Dawn, 2021). Prime Minister Imran Khan emphasised the intention to ﬁnd consensus with the stakeholders.
1 Honor killing is the murder of a family member, usually a woman or girl, for the purported reason that the person has brought dishonour or shame upon the family.
These killings often have to do with sexual purity, and supposed transgressions on the part of female family members. (UN WOMEN)
On the other hand, Fawad Hussain claimed that the media was being used as a tool in the ongoing media war game, and ruled out the possibility of any compromise on clauses comprising media workers’ rights and curb fake news (The News, 2021a).
In the EU Disinformation Lab report2, some 875 fake websites were pointed out for being used for spreading fake news against the country. Fawad Hussain cites several cases in which fake news has had a destabilising eﬀect on Pakistani society (The News, 2021a). It looks clear from these claims that the Pakistani government feels more than justiﬁed to bring the PMDA forward in its realisation. Its main vindications appears to be an increase in the proﬁt that comes from the media market and the aim to limit fake news for social security’s sake.
Nonetheless, these oﬃcial statements haven’t convinced journalists, who by and large maintained strong reservations towards the PMDA (Dawn, 2021).
On September 12th, The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ)3 organised a march from the National Press Club to Parliament House climaxing in a sit-in outside Parliament House against the Pakistan Media Development Authority (Chakrabarti, 2021). Some leaders of the opposition parties even joined journalists in the protest outside the parliament house to stand in solidarity against what they deem a “black law” (Dunya News, 2021). Most notably, Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)4, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari with Mian Shehbaz Sharif, President of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)5, expressed solidarity with the journalists in their struggle for the freedom of media in the country (Dunya News, 2021).
- EU DisinfoLab is an independent non-proﬁt organisation focused on tackling sophisticated disinformation campaigns targeting the EU, its member states, core institutions, and core
- The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) is a trade union federation of journalists in Pakistan founded on 2nd August Their website can be found at https://pfuj.pk/.
- The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is a centre-left, social-democratic political party in Pakistan founded in Their website can be found at https://www.ppp.org.pk/.
- The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is a centre-right, conservative political party in Pakistan, founded in Their website can be found at ttps://pmln.org/.
Press Freedom is an integral part of freedom of expression, and it’s indispensable in a functional democratic society. Furthermore, minority groups have additional need for this speciﬁc kind of freedom. For instance, if a minority ends up being discriminated against, a free press is the main tool to point out and speak out against the perpetrators of the discrimination. Without a free press, minorities are deprived of the main tool to report and condemn discriminatory behaviours. This is the paramount reason why non-governmental organisations like Human Rights Watch have focused on the proposal of the PMDA as a potentially worrying sign for the implementation of draconian censorship, and this is also what opposition parties are scared of (Dunya News, 2021).
Even a group of Pakistani journalists in Britain condemned the Pakistan government plans
with a protest held outside the Pakistan High Commission6 in London (Shah, 2021).
Furthermore, journalists leaders condemned the fact that oﬃcials of the Pakistan High Commission called journalists individually, asking them not to hold the protest and threatening serious consequences for organising the protest. From the journalists perspective, media tribunals are the major threat of the new PMDA because they will force journalists not to be objective and impartial (Shah, 2021).
Meanwhile, on September 16th, the representatives of the media industry and the government have formed a committee to address the controversial PMDA. The Joint Action Committee expressed its reservations on the proposed PMDA and termed it unacceptable (Kalbe, 2021). Nonetheless, Senator Faisal Javed assured the committee that Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government would not impose any restriction on the freedom of the press (Kalbe, 2021).
- The High Commission of Pakistan in London is the diplomatic mission of Pakistan in the United Kingdom. For more info, visit their site at https://www.phclondon.org/main/.
Almost an entire month has passed from the day Patricia Grossman published her article, ﬁrstly raising attention on the Pakistan Media Development Authority bill (Grossman, 2021). From then, journalistic organisations, international organisations, opposition parties and many more raised their voices, protested and asked for a more democratic revision of media laws. The government, although acting defensively, opened for a committee to address the issue amicably, and started a debate with several stakeholders. Nevertheless, the controversy is far from its end, and we will have to wait and hope that all parties involved will cooperate to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Pakistan.
Abbasi, Kashif, (2021), Journalists begin protest against govt’s PMDA move, published in Dawn on September 13, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1646173/politicians- civil-society-express-solidarity-with-journalists-in-protest-against-proposed-media- authority
Chakrabarti, Angana (2021) Pakistani journalists are protesting Imran Khan’s ‘black’ law. Shehbaz Sharif is all ears. Published on September 13, 2021 in The Print. https://theprint.in/go-to-pakistan/pakistani-journalists-ar e-protesting-imran-khans- black-law-shehbaz-sharif-is-all-ears/732692/
Dunya News Staﬀ, (2021). Opposition terms PMDA bill as ‘black law’, vows to stand with journalists. Published on September 13 in Dunya News. https://dunyanews.tv/ en/Pakistan/619543-Opposition-terms-PMDA-bill-as-/’black-law/’,-vows-to-stand- with-journalist
Kalbe, Ali (2021), Media bodies term PMDA ‘unacceptable’, form committee to address issue of fake news, published in Dawn on September 16, 2021, https:// www.dawn.com/news/1646644/media-bodies-term-pmda-unacceptable-form- committee-to-address-issue-of-fake-news
Khan, Zeb Mubarak (2021), ‘Democracy will die’: Politicians, civil society join journalists in protest against proposed media authority, published in Dawn on September 13, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1646173/democracy-will-die-politicians-civil- society-join-journalists-in-protest-against-proposed-media-authority
Gossman, Patricia (2021) Proposed Pakistan Authority Seeks Greater Control of Media, published on August 23, 2021 in HRW. https://www.hrw.org/news/ 2021/08/23/proposed-pakistan-authority-seeks-greater-control-media
Shah, Murtaza Ali (2021), PMDA issue: Journalists hold protest in London. Published on September 13, 2021 in The News International. https://www.thenews.com.pk/ print/892003-pmda-issue-journalists-hold-protest-in-london
Staﬀ Reporter, (2021), Reporters to boycott president’s address to join sitting, published on September 12, 2021 in Dawn https://www.dawn.com/ news/1645894/ reporters-to-boycott-presidents-address-to-joint-sitting
The News, (2021b), Pak Embassy rejects HRW claim about PMDA, published on August 26, 2021 in The News https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/883379-pak-embassy- rejects-hrw-claim-about-pmda