Threats to press freedom in Pakistan from hastily adopted laws ahead of elections
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Pakistani government to repeal several draconian laws supposedly designed to combat “disinformation,” “cybercrimes” and “spying” that it forced through parliament shortly before its dissolution. The government should instead work with civil society on real reforms that would preserve press freedom and the right to information, RSF says.
It was amid scenes of legislative chaos a few hours before parliament’s dissolution that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government pulled off the feat of getting both chambers to hastily adopt its controversial amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordiance, which open the way to more censorship.
Shortly before that, the government also managed to rush through adoption of its Official Secrets Amendment Act, 2023, which could also be widely used to harass journalists. And even after its departure, it could be seen as another draconian bill, the previously introduced E-Safety Authority Bill 2023 if passed, into a law soon. All of these laws, drafted without consultation with civil society, pose serious risks to press freedom. Instead of improving the situation of the media, they threaten them with censorship.
“The government has succeeded in its strategy of dividing the media community with meagre concessions while pushing through laws whose real objective is to control the media in the run-up to the general elections. It was in a context of political instability that these dangerous reforms favouring censorship were imposed. We call on the next Parliament to repeal these laws, which pose a serious threat to press freedom, and to engage in a dialogue with civil society in order to draft real reforms that respect the right to information.
It was like a scene from a parliamentary sketch. Adopted by the National Assembly on 2 August and then abandoned on 7 August after an outcry, the PEMRA (Amendment) Act was finally reintroduced and adopted by both chambers in the space of a few hours before parliament’s dissolution on 9 August.
Portrayed by information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb as a way to “protect” and “give responsibility” to electronic media journalists, the amendments were hailed by several unions including a faction of the Pakistan Federal Union of journalists (PFUJ) and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA).
But the amendments, which RSF has examined, contain only a few meagre advances. For example, they require employers to pay employees’ salaries within two months, whereas they were not previously bound by any deadline. They prevent the head of the PEMRA from deciding on their own to suspend a TV channel. And they incorporate members of the PFUJ and the PBA into the PEMRA, but without giving them voting rights. Moreover, the role of the Parliament is introduced in the selection of the Chairman of the Authority.
On the contrary, the amendments alarm more than they reassure. In fact, the PEMRA, whose main duty since 2002 has been to approve electronic media licences in accordance with constitutional criteria, could as a result of these amendments become a full-blown censorship tool in the hands of the government.
According to the amended preamble, the PEMRA is responsible for the broadcasting of “authentic news” without offering a precise definition of this term. At the same time, section 2 (a) introduced a very broad and ambiguous definition of “disinformation,” namely, “verifiably false, misleading, manipulated, created or fabricated information which is disseminated or shared with the intention to cause harm to the reputation of or to harass any person for political, personal, or financial interest or gains without making an effort to get other person’s point of view or not giving it proper coverage and space.”
The PEMRA is now given very broad discretionary power to suspend any media outlet or revoke its licence for spreading “fake news.” And instead of being fined up to 1 million rupees (about 3,220 euros), a media outlet could now be fined up to 10 million rupees (32,200 euros).
RSF’s partner in Pakistan, Freedom Network, has not only denounced the failure to consult with civil society in the drafting of the amendments but also insists that they constitute a violation of article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution guaranteeing every citizen’s right to information.
Extending intelligence agency powers
In another alarming development, the National Assembly amended the century old "Official Secrets Act" on 1 August, acting both hastily and discreetly, as a copy of was only distributed to some of the members of Parliament. It grants Pakistani intelligence the right to search any place and to arrest, without an arrest warrant and with the use of force, any person considered to be a “spy.” The problem is that section 8-A of the law, which introduces the notion of “enemy” [of the state], makes no distinction between a spy and a person who has disseminated sensitive information in the public interest.
By giving Pakistan’s intelligence agencies a virtual blank check to act as they see fit, this law further extends the powers of already powerful entities that have repeatedly targeted journalists such as Imran Riaz Khan, a TV news anchor who was arrested in 2022 for criticising the intelligences agencies and who has been missing since 11 May. This is not the first time the Sharif government has done something like this. Last February, RSF denounced an amendment to the Penal Code aimed at silencing any criticism of the army.
Occupying the digital space
On 26 July, the Pakistani government also approved an electronic security bill that would create a new digital media regulator, the Digital Security Authority, composed of members appointed by the government. It is supposed to “protect” online users, commercial companies, and public and private institutions against “cybercrimes” and, more particularly, “online harassment,” “cyberbullying” and “blackmailing.”
If parliament passes the law, the government intends to give this new authority the almost-Orwellian power to record and monitor digital media content. And, with regards to (broadly defined) “fake news,” it would have powers similar to those that the PEMRA has over the broadcast media. In other words, it would be empowered to block the licences of websites, online newspapers and YouTube channels, and to impose fines on them. The Digital Security Authority would therefore extend the list of cybercrime prevention entities considered obsolete due to their inefficacy or oppressive impact on the media.
By threatening online freedom and facilitating government censorship, this new law would be following in the footsteps of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which has been used to disastrous effect in the past few years against independent journalists and social media. As the Pakistan Digital Editors Alliance points out, “over one million websites remain blocked in Pakistan without any proper justification.”
Pakistan is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.