It is hard to believe that a democratically elected government should want to muzzle the print media. Contents of a document leaked from the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) show a draconian new press law has been in the works at the behest of the information ministry, making it mandatory for publishers of newspapers and periodicals to obtain fresh licences every year, aimed, of course, at punishing publications that refuse to toe government line. A new body, Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority (PPMRA), was to be established with the power to cancel a publication’s licence at will, and also conduct raids on printing presses and impose penalties, including imprisonment, on those found violating the new rules and regulations. The proposed PPMRA was also to oversee the distribution of local and foreign newspapers and magazines. The authority was to comprise eight members appointed by the government, including only one media representative. This looks like a rehash of the black law, the Press and Publications Ordinance, 1960, introduced by a military dictator, General Ayub Khan, to control the media.
The media in this country has fought long and hard to win its freedom. It cannot be expected to accept stringent new restrictions that are blatantly malevolent in intent. No wonder the print media representatives on the PCP were shocked to see the draft law, and vowed to resist any government move to gag the press. The draft was shared with all journalists’ unions, drawing a strong reaction. Only then the framers of the proposed oppressive legislation realized their folly. Both the PCP and the information ministry have since feigned ignorance about its existence. While the Information Minister claimed she had nothing to do with the proposed PPMRA Ordinance placed on the PCP agenda, the latter has issued a statement saying “no law over the subject mentioned in the print media reports has ever been framed. … The legislation process, whenever undertaken by the federal government, is initiated in consultation with the stakeholders.” The stakeholders within PCP, surely, did not invent the draft that they brought to the notice of journalists’ bodies. Be that as it may, it is a matter of satisfaction that good sense prevailed before the controversy could result in an unsavoury confrontation. The government has wisely backtracked, but not without causing alarm, and harm to its own image.
It needs to be recognized that in any functioning democracy, the print and the electronic media are the guardians of public interest and, hence, have an adversarial relationship with government. They have a duty to bring any acts of omission or commission in society to public attention and seek transparency. A free and responsible press is an integral part of democratic order. There already exists a mechanism to deal with elements who do not live up to the required standards. Any attempt aim at bringing a repressive law in whatever shape or form will only invite stiff resistance.