With Pakistan’s new government setting about swiftly dismantling its predecessor’s information policy, the sword hanging over the media’s head seems a little less menacing.
On April 19, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb announced that the Pakistan Media Development Authority – which, had the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government had its way, would have been armed with draconian powers to control the media – was being disbanded “in whatever shape or form it was working”.
No black law, she declared, would henceforth be proposed or enacted to stifle the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. Aurangzeb further said that the Digital Media Wing set up by the Imran Khan government to disseminate official information on social media platforms would also be shuttered.
The move was welcomed by many who accused the Digital Media Wing of instigating vicious trolling of the Opposition as well as journalists, bloggers – in short, anyone expressing views critical of the party.
Censorship in past
The assault on the right to freedom of speech in the country during the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s tenure was perhaps unprecedented for a civilian dispensation to engage in. But let there be no mistake – the Pakistan Muslim League (N) has been no champion of free speech either.
In fact, the draft of a print media regulatory law that surfaced in 2017, during the party’s previous stint in power, was so similar to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority law that it could have conceivably been authored by the same hand.
It included measures such as publishing licences to be renewed annually, the possibility of jail terms for journalists and publishers and raids on the offices of publications that were deemed to have violated the law in question. It was only an uproar in the media and civil society that forced the government to backtrack.
And how can one forget that the restrictive Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, is actually the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s brainchild? Or that its government, when the draft was formulated, sidelined stakeholders despite promising to hold meaningful discussions with them and ultimately bulldozed through a Bill that is a vehicle for unabashed censorship? That law was then “improved” upon by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government through an ordinance, bringing Pakistan even closer to the most repressive countries on the planet.
Earlier this month, the Islamabad High Court reclaimed to some extent the people’s right to free speech stolen by successive governments. It struck down a part of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act’s Section 20, thereby excluding reputational damage as grounds for a criminal defamation charge, and declared the entire amendment ordinance as unconstitutional. However, there are still several landmines strewn across the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act that are not conducive to a healthy exchange of views.
Aurangzeb has given assurances that Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act will be revisited in consultation with stakeholders, and this is to be welcomed. In such an exercise, misinformation and disinformation must be clearly defined, for they are very different things, and there must only be reasonable restrictions on free speech.
This article first appeared in Dawn.