Hasty amendments to a 2002 law setting up the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) will pose fresh threats to journalists working in this fast-expanding sector, Reporters Without Borders warned today
The organisation said it regretted the lack of debate in the national assembly when the amendments were passed on 16 May and called on the senate to modify them before they are promulgated by President Pervez Musharraf.
Even if the amended law brings some improvements for Pakistan’s electronic media, certain of its articles place serious curbs on press freedom by allowing the PEMRA to seize equipment, withdraw licences and conduct investigations.
A new article in section XVIII grants the PEMRA police powers for offences covered by the law. Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists secretary-general Mazhar Abbas told Reporters Without Borders this would allow the authorities to arrest electronic media journalists without a warrant.
Violations are punishable by prison sentences of up to three years and fines of some ten million rupees (13,700 euros).
Information minister Sheikh Rashid said he was unaware of any measures allowing arrests without a warrant, and instead stressed the fact that the new law will allow individuals to own both print and broadcast media. Until now, companies owning newspapers that wanted to set up TV stations had to locate their headquarters abroad.
Reporters Without Borders said it welcomed this liberalisation, which should allow new privately-owned media to be set up in Pakistan.
But the press freedom organisation said it also contested the legitimacy of increasing government representation on the PEMRA. Under the amended law, the number of government-appointed members increases from four out of nine to seven out of 12, thereby giving the government an absolute majority.