Censorship in Pakistan:
Another big step towards strengthening dictatorship
The Supreme Court of Pakistan once again faces an acid test as it examines the legality of the fresh restrictions imposed by President General Pervez Musharraf on the media on 4 June 2007 under the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Amendment) Ordinance 2007. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has been authorized to confiscate the equipment of broadcasters, seal the premises and cancel the licenses, if they violated the rules, without consulting the “council of complaints”, whose opinion is required before revocation of a license.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has been in virtual disarray following the suspension of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary on 9 March 2007 and his subsequent trial for allegations of corruption.
Until the suspension of Justice Chaudhary, compared to his predecessors, both Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Shariff who equally suppressed the obstreperous broadcasters and newspapers, General Musharaff was more subtle. But, as General Musharaff faced the most serious challenge to his rule to date as a fall-out of sacking of Justice Chaudhary, he has been inexorably eviscerating his subtlety on the media.
I. Heightened repression on the media
President Musharraf's increased repression is a direct consequence of his inability to find a solution to the crisis emerged in the wake of suspension of Chief Justice Chaudhary or to reach any agreement with Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan Peoples Party for power-sharing.
As the protest reached its crescendo, on 31 May 2007, Pakistan's Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani warned that the government would strictly enforce media laws forbidding criticism of the army and the judiciary. This was immediately followed by issuance of directive by PEMRA on 2 June 2007 to the private TV channels not to telecast any event related to the sacked Chief Justice Chaudhary, including live talk shows and discussions etc on the issue of the Presidential reference against Chief Justice Chaudhary.
TV stations and newspaper offices have been attacked and journalists assaulted since the suspension of Chief Justice Chaudhary on 9 March 2007. One of the most brutal attacks on media in recent times was the attack by police personnel at Geo TV office on 16 March 2007 minutes after the channel telecast footage of police action against protesting lawyers and activists of various political parties during Supreme Judicial Council proceedings against Justice Chaudhary. Journalists were beaten up, the office was damaged and tear gas shells were thrown into a newspaper office by the police. Although President Pervez Musharraf was quick to apologise for the incident, the mere action taken was suspension of 14 policemen for their alleged involvement in the attack. But no action was taken against the chief architect of the attack or against those who led the police mob.
On 18 May 2007, Shakil Turabi, editor of the South Asian News Agency, was severely beaten by unidentified goons allegedly for criticising General Musharraf's action against Justice Chaudhary.
During the riots on 12 May 2007 in Karachi in which at least 34 people were killed and over 140 others injured in clashes between the government and the opposition supporters in Karachi, the premises of private TV station Aaj TV and the Business Recorder newspaper were also attacked during the May 12 riots in Karachi for airing live footage of the riots.
II. Media freedom Vs PEMRA
The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees freedom of the press and expression as a fundamental right under Article 19 which states that “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”
But taking undue advantage of the provisions of “reasonable restrictions imposed by law”, a draconian government media watchdog, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was established under PEMRA Ordinance 2002 to regulate the private electronic media. On 16 May 2006, the National Assembly adopted an amendment to PEMRA to empower the authorities to shut down broadcasting channels on the grounds of telecasting contents “offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency”. Under the amended Act, PEMRA is authorised to seize equipment, withdraw licences and conduct investigations and empowers the police to arrest electronic media journalists without a warrant. Violations are punishable by prison sentences of up to three years.
In February 2007, the PEMRA Act was further amended to insert some more draconian clauses. An amended sub-section (5) of Section 29 reads: “Provided further that the Authority or the chairman may seize a broadcast or distribution service equipment or seal the premises, which is operating illegally or (in) contravention of orders passed under Section 30.” A new provision - Section 39 (A) - even authorised the PEMRA to make rules and regulations on its own from time to time by simply issuing notifications in the official gazette. The amendment also increased the fine for violators to Rs. 10 million from the existing Rs. 1 million. 
In the original PEMRA Act, there was a three-member committee having one nominee each from a licensee and the PEMRA and a retired judge of a high court or the Supreme Court to recommend cancellation of a licence after receiving complaints. But in February 2007, the law was amended to replace the three-member committee with a Council of Complaints whose opinion must be taken before cancellation of a licence. But the government has not yet constituted the Council of Complaints.
President Musharaff does not have a blank cheque to rule Pakistan. He still has to win the forthcoming Presidential election. The issue of whether President Musharaff should keep his uniform to contest the elections has become the most critical issue. At the same time, President Musharaff knows too well that without the uniform he is susceptible to “regime change” and any new incumbent may prove indispensable to the Americans. Therefore, President Musharaff desperately requires legitimacy.
With judiciary on trial and television and the press frightened, Musharaff has closed down the processes which will give him necessary legitimacy. President Musharaff must withdraw all the draconian measures against the press for his own good.