As part of its crackdown on freedom of expression, the Pakistani government is seeking sweeping new powers to control the media. Journalists across Pakistan have raised the alarm about proposed legislation that would augment the powers of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and allow it to access human resources data at independent media houses.
PEMRA has long been the enforcer of the government’s intensifying campaign of censorship and repression of the media. It has ordered television channels to shut down for airing criticism of the government, terminated live interviews of opposition leaders, and blocked cable operators from broadcasting networks that aired critical programs.
On January 25, the government introduced a bill in the Senate to give PEMRA new powers to obtain employee records and contracts, asserting the move will protect the right of journalists to be paid. But given that PEMRA has been the government’s primary instrument of media censorship, these claims ring hollow.
Pakistan’s opposition-controlled Senate has rejected the bill, with Senator Sherry Rehman criticizing PEMRA for trying to use a “backdoor” to gain further control over the already stifled media. But the fight is not over. Pakistan’s media outlets fear that the government may simply decree the new law, or try to push the bill through the National Assembly, where it has a majority, before resubmitting to the Senate after elections to take place in the coming weeks.
Journalists are entitled to adequate and timely wages. And the government should ensure this by enforcing labor laws and protections. But few in the media would want the same agency that has pressured them to fire prominent journalists who criticized the government to now have direct access to and control over human resource departments.
The PEMRA law needs to be amended -- not to grant it more unchecked powers, but to make it an independent media regulator dedicated to protecting free expression. With journalists under relentless attack for doing their jobs, the Pakistan government needs to stop trying to control reporters and instead start protecting them and their right to free expression.