Reporters Without Borders today hailed last night’s decision by the Pakistani government to suspend implementation of an ordinance that would increase the powers of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA) following a wave of protests by journalists’ organisations and the political opposition.
The authorities announced the creation of a six-member committee to review the controversial ordinance and submit a report to the prime minister. The decision was announced soon after a meeting yesterday evening in Islamabad between the information minister and some owners of leading news media, including privately-owned TV stations.
“The determined opposition of Pakistan’s journalists and the support of the international community forced the government to back down on its draconian plan to reinforce the PEMRA’s powers,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The authorities and the media must now sit down together and construct an independent mechanism for regulating the broadcast media.”
During a national assembly session yesterday, dozens of journalists and opposition members vented their anger against the government’s attempts to reinforce censorship. Such slogans as “We want freedom,” “The pen flag will continue to fly” and “Black law unacceptable” were chanted in the national assembly chamber, press gallery and corridors, where scuffles also took place. Speaker Amir Hussain finally banned journalists from entering the parliament building.
The European Union and the United States had both warned the Pakistani government of the dangers of reinforcing the PEMRA’s powers.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf is bigger press freedom predator than ever
Amid government measures reinforcing censorship of television and telecommunications, Reporters Without Borders appealed today to President Pervez Musharraf to heed the appeals of Pakistan’s journalists, the public and the international community to respect press freedom.
“Gen. Musharraf, it is not yet too late to rescind the new electronic media ordinance and to put an end to the arbitrary censorship of TV stations,” the press freedom organisation said. “The prime minister’s announced withdrawal today of complaints against 200 journalists shows that it is possible to defuse tension and defend freedom of expression.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We extend our support to all the media workers who plan to participate in tomorrow’s protest against the return of censorship, which has been called by the main journalists’ union. There is now a greater need than ever to defend the press freedom that is guaranteed by article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution.”
President Musharraf promulgated an ordinance on 4 June reinforcing the powers of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to censor and control TV stations and cable operators. It gave the PEMRA the power to seize the equipment of TV stations and cancel broadcast licences, in complete violation of the laws in force, and increased maximum fines from 1 to 10 million rupees. Furthermore, the PEMRA no longer needs to refer to a complaints council before taking action, as it was required to do under the previous legislation.
According to some reports, the new regulations are going to extended to the Internet and mobile phones, and the authorities also plan to increase their monitoring of the activities of the foreign news media.
The national assembly had already increased the PEMRA’s powers last year, allowing it to seize equipment and arrest broadcast media journalists. And an amendment to article 29 of the PEMRA’s statutes in February of this year increased the size of the fines it could impose. At the same time, this amendment provided for the creation of a complaints board for settling disputes. But the government never went ahead with the creation of this body.
Lawyers have filed petitions before the supreme court in an attempt to block the new ordinance.
On 2 June, the PEMRA ordered TV stations to suspend live broadcasts of events linked to the political crisis that has been shaking the country since the dismissal of supreme court president Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary on 9 March. At the same time as the PEMRA issued this order, the information ministry banned the press from criticising the army and the judicial authorities.
Under government pressure, cable TV operators stopped carrying two of the leading privately-owned TV stations, ARY TV and Aaj TV, on 1 June. At the same time, Geo TV was censored for nearly two days starting on 3 June, with the authorities pressuring the station’s management to suspend its news programme “Meray Mutabiq.”
The only good news is Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s announcement today that he has ordered the withdrawal of complaints brought against 200 journalists, including leaders of the journalists’ union, for defying a protest ban. Hundreds of journalists took part in a demonstration in Islamabad on 4 June at which participants chanted slogans hostile to the president and information minister. The government last week issued a ban on any demonstration involving more than five people.
Gen. Musharraf has been on the Reporters Without Borders list of press freedom predators since 2003.