- An attempt to gain control
Perhaps the most suspicious thing about the Federal Cabinet’s approval of a draft bill setting up media tribunals in its meeting on Tuesday is that it has been imposed by fiat on the media, with no consultation of any of the stakeholders, neither the press representative bodies, nor the labour unions, not the press clubs, nor the broadcasters’ associations. The new tribunals will replace the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s Council of Complaints. PM’s Information Adviser Firdous Ashiq Awan, who in addition to being the government’s spokesperson is also the person responsible for the new tribunals at the ministerial level, made the announcement. However, though the bill has been approved, it has not been scheduled for passage. Even when it does win that favour, the government will only be able to get it through the National Assembly, and will only get through the Senate after its 2021 election. Until then, it remains in a minority there. Even then, the bill might face a logjam of legislation.
The new tribunals lead to the suspicion that they are about gaining control over the electronic media at the cost of press freedom. The Council of Complaints is not so deluged by complaints that an ensuing uproar has meant that a new forum needs be provided. Also suspicious is making these tribunals the forums at which workers’ issues are to be sorted out. Ousting the jurisdiction of the labour courts, where both judges and lawyers have specialised both by study and though practice, does not seem to make much sense. It seems an odd mixture of legal specialities: libel laws for hearings of complaints, and labour laws for workers’ issues (even though labour courts are not overburdened by media issues).
Another worrisome dimension is that the government has a track record of trying to have one body to deal with both electronic and print media, and it has tried to have a single regulatory body for both media, thereby proposing the merger of the Press Council of Pakistan with PEMRA. It is capable, if it gets what it wants from the tribunals, of extending this idea to print media as well. The purpose would only be to stifle the criticism the media is making, because it is acting as the voice of the people.