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CPJ Urges Reevaluation of Legislation in Pakistan That Threatens Press Freedom

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CPJ Urges Reevaluation of Legislation in Pakistan That Threatens Press Freedom

On July 20, the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament saw the introduction of a draft bill by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb. This bill aimed to amend the ordinance governing the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the nation’s broadcast regulator, as reported by various news outlets.

Under this proposed bill, PEMRA would be granted increased authority to regulate the dissemination of what it deems to be “authentic news” while prohibiting media outlets from spreading what it terms as “disinformation.” However, the latter term, vaguely defined, raised concerns among human rights groups such as the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which warned of potential censorship implications.

The National Assembly, Pakistan’s lower house of parliament, passed the PEMRA amendment bill on Wednesday, with plans to move it to the Senate for further deliberation. Additionally, the federal cabinet approved two other draft bills, expected to be introduced in parliament soon. One such pending bill aims to amend the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA).

Local journalists and rights advocates fear that these legislative measures could further undermine data security and restrict online free expression, particularly as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government approaches dissolution later in the month. The proposed bills could afford sweeping powers to the incoming caretaker government, a matter of concern for both Sharif’s ruling coalition and the military.

Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, expressed alarm over the government’s apparent rush to push through legislation undermining press freedom before the impending political transition. He emphasized the need for substantive debate and thorough review of the bills in consultation with civil society and journalists before any voting takes place.

Prime Minister Sharif has proposed the dissolution of parliament on August 9, preceding the transfer of power to a caretaker administration in preparation for a general election.

CPJ has been documenting press freedom violations in Pakistan since former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ousting from power in April 2022, amid an ongoing political crisis. Mainstream news channels ceased coverage of Khan following a de facto ban and military pressure.

On July 26, the federal cabinet approved two additional draft bills: the E-Safety Bill 2023 and the Personal Data Protection Bill 2023, setting the stage for parliamentary consideration.

The E-Safety Bill proposes the establishment of a new regulatory body to monitor news websites and online channels, with provisions to penalize alleged cybercrime violations, including the dissemination of “false” news, potentially stifling free speech.

Meanwhile, the Personal Data Protection Bill mandates data localization within Pakistan for companies, including social media platforms. It also allows for the handing over of “sensitive personal data” to the government under the guise of “public order” or “national security,” raising concerns about journalists’ privacy.

Furthermore, amendments to PECA and social media rules are in the pipeline, including provisions for imprisoning individuals and imposing fines for disseminating “fake or false information” online.

The PEMRA amendment bill defines “disinformation” as “verifiably false” information disseminated with intent to harm reputation or harass individuals for political, personal, or financial interests. This definition has raised concerns among journalists and rights advocates, fearing it could discourage critical reporting and empower powerful figures to suppress media scrutiny.

Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, called for broadcasters and journalists’ unions to have a say in PEMRA decisions, highlighting the agency’s history of suspending broadcasters and censoring content. A draft amendment introduced to parliament proposes allowing the union and local broadcasters one non-voting representative each at PEMRA.

Despite these developments, the timing of parliamentary votes on these bills remains uncertain, according to Farieha Aziz, a freelance journalist and co-founder of the digital rights organization Bolo Bhi, who spoke with CPJ.

The proposed legislative changes in Pakistan have sparked widespread concern among journalists, rights advocates, and civil society groups, who are urging for a more transparent and inclusive legislative process that upholds fundamental principles of press freedom and freedom of expression.

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