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What is PMDA and why are journalists protesting against it?

A protest being held against the proposed PMDA by the the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). Source: Twitter.

Ever since Fawad Chaudhry reassumed charge as information minister, the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting has once again started working to establish a new media regulatory authority.

The proposal to establish the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) has met with criticism from journalists, activists and the opposition.

What is PMDA?

The Pakistan Media Development Authority Ordinance 2021 aims to create an independent, efficient, effective, and transparent Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) to regulate all forms of media and bring them under one converged regulator and statutory authority.

The PMDA will regulate films, electronic, print, and digital media, including Web TV, OTT, and news websites. A draft of the ordinance is currently under review and will soon be presented for legislation and implemented throughout the country.

The PDMA shall issue licenses for electronic, print, and digital media. The authority may further sub-categorize the categories as it may deem fit, such as news and current affairs, entertainment, sport, regional language, education, agriculture, health, specialized subjects, kids, travel and tourism, science and technology, etc.

No broadcast media channel/print media or digital media platform will be entitled to public sector advertisement till the completion of a one-year non-stop operation since its official launch.

“Any licensee and registered entity, declaration and NOC holder or person who violates or abets the violation of any of the provision of this Ordinance shall be guilty of offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine which may extend up to twenty-five million rupees or with both,” the draft states.

The authority requires the licensee to not broadcast, distribute or make available online anything which is known to be false or baseless or is mala fide or for which there exist sufficient reasons to believe that the same may be false, baseless, or mala fide.

Once established, the authority will consist of a chairperson and 11 members to be appointed by the President of Pakistan on the advice of the federal government. The chairperson of the Authority will be appointed from a panel of grade 21-22 of information group officers.

Opposition by journalists

The journalist fraternity has opposed the proposed ordinance and began a sit-in outside the Parliament House. Opposition political parties and human rights organizations have also joined the protest, stating that the proposed PDMA aimed to suppress freedom of the press.

The protest call was given by various journalist bodies, headed by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ). PFUJ general secretary Nasir Zaidi said the journalist community had rejected the proposed PMDA as it was an attempt to stifle the voice of media.

The joint action committee including representative media organisations namely Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), and the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND) have announced to protest against the authority.

The Parliamentary Reporters Association had announced that reporters would boycott the presidential address in protest against the proposed media authority.

The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) has announced its support for journalists in their fight against the proposed media authority, while the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed serious concerns.

Restrictions on Digital media

It has been proposed that the PMDA be given the authority to register digital media platforms. In that case, digital media is also likely to see more stringent regulation and control by the government.

It states that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has no control over the content of media reporting projected via cell phones. The PMDA will have the authority to impose sanctions on media entities in case of any violations of regulations and greater control on the content published and shared on digital media.

The body is planning to increase the monitoring of revenues generated through online advertisements. All ‘Undocumented and unregulated’ online advertisements mean there are chances of “revenue leaks and tax evasion”. Therefore, the authority will issue guidelines for internet-based advertising and revenue generated from it.

Wages, complaints and tribunal

In addition to its regulatory function, the authority will determine media employees’ wages and resolve wage disputes. The federal government will set up media complaints councils to receive, scrutinise, investigate and review complaints pertaining to content published or broadcast on media platforms and the non-payment of wages to media workers.

These councils will have the authority to summon persons against whom complaints are lodged and seek an explanation from them. In case a person wants to file an appeal challenging the decision of any of the councils or PMDA, they will be able to approach a tribunal operating under the authority.

It also states that no authority but the Supreme Court will have the jurisdiction to question the legality of anything done or any decision taken under the PMDA ordinance.

These tribunals will have the power to hand punishments of up to three years in jail and Rs25 million in fines to content producers for violating the new provisions.

Journalists have the right to peaceful protest. The government should not pass laws that impede freedom of speech and expression but rather work with the media fraternity to address their concerns and strengthen democratic norms in society.