On Friday, Pakistan’s government moved to lift harsh restrictions on the media that were imposed by President Pervez Musharraf during his emergency rule in November 2007. The PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) amendment bill, introduced by Information minister Sherry Rahman, proposed “an end to curbs on live broadcasts and punishments for journalists ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment and confiscation of equipment,” reported the AFP. Rahman told reporters outside the National Assembly today, “The amendments will remove the entire apparatus of restrictions imposed on the press.” BBC News quoted the minister further claiming, “We will put our own house in order to allow the press to broadcast not just live telecast but all that they feel to broadcast.” Musharraf had blocked live broadcasting by several private channels “after their televised rallies in support of the chief justice and criticisms of the president and army,” reported the BBC.
Although the bill was only introduced today (The News reported it was soon “tabled,” or put aside) the Associated Press labeled the development, “a rare upbeat moment in a weak plagued by factional violence and signs of cracks emerging in the four-party ruling coalition that emerged from the Feb. 18th parliamentary elections.” Although the development is certainly noteworthy, I sincerely hope the bill becomes more than just a symbolic piece of legislation.
In monitoring news coverage of the PEMRA amendment bill today, I noted the lack of background information on the media restrictions. The irony is that the man responsible for liberalizing the press was also the same person who stifled that very process. In 2002, Musharraf’s regime set up PEMRA to issue the first licenses for private radio stations and television channels. In the last six years, about 130 FM stations and 50 television channels have been established. In the last year especially, the Pakistani media was instrumental in providing breaking coverage of major events occurring in the country, particularly the riots following the firing of the chief Supreme Court judge in March 2007. The Pakistani Press Foundation noted the aftermath of this judicial crisis was “the first time ever in Pakistan’s history that the average citizen has been afforded and sustained real-time access to information about an unfolding crisis of monumental proportions in which they have found they can influence the outcome of debates through protests through the power of informed responses orchestrated by the civil society.” Although most media outlets were banned during the six-week emergency, regulations to control the press persisted even after these news agencies were allowed back on the air, which in turn further fueled the media’s criticisms of the regime.
Interestingly, the same ruling parties who are pushing to undo these media restrictions are ironically not strangers to press censorship. For example, Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist and host of GEO TV’s Capital Talk, reportedly lost his job at Daily Jang in 1994 when he broke the submarines purchase scandal, which implicated those close to Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir Bhutto was in power at the time) along with some Navy officials. In 1997, Mir was again fired, this time from the Daily Pakistan, for writing an article on the alleged corruption of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
If the PEMRA amendment bill is on the table, the current ruling coalition should ensure that it is a sincere effort to address press censorship, not merely a symbolic step to appease its constituents. Moreover, the government should understand that the amendment allows for a more liberalized press, one that sees itself as a check on the establishment. The media is not the same animal they knew when they were last in power. Rather, it is a force that challenges the actions or inactions of the ruling parties. If someone like Hamid Mir was fired now for breaking a similar story, I would be surprised if the media didn’t react in outrage, and I would be even more surprised if the government was not held accountable for said action. [The image, from the AFP, is of people protesting the restrictions on the media.]