Freedom of expression, a universal human right, is central to a strong democracy. In Pakistan it is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution with some key caveats. Of the strongly advised refrains, the Pakistani state and various governments, both elected and non-representative – including their constituent authorities – have historically used their influence to limit criticism of the military, judiciary and religion. The Supreme Court and the military/intelligence have in recent months coercively held some parts of the media in contempt. One television channel was charged with treason, convicted and punished for it. Several others were indicted for blasphemy. Religious groups, both legal and proscribed, often resort to various kinds of pressures to browbeat media.
This unprecedentedly specific official directive to the media is disturbing for several reasons. One, it is nothing less than a mass gag order on the entire print media.
Now the last of four refrains – rare in its application – has been invoked. And ominously so. On May 13, 2015, an Orwellian missive arrived at the headquarters of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) from the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP). Signed by its Director Judicial, it says: “The Chairman, PCP has desired that while reporting on Yemen Crisis and Saudi Arabia, provision of Article 19 of Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan may be kept in view by our print media. Acute care should be taken to avoid negative comments to ensure about our bilateral friendly relations with Arab countries are not adversely affected.” It also spells out Article 19 (freedom of expression) and Article 19A (right to information) to detail the exceptions to freedom of expression as an added emphasis to its directive.
|The letter received by the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) from the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) | courtesy APNS
This unprecedentedly specific official directive to the media is disturbing for several reasons. One, it is nothing less than a mass gag order on the entire print media. Second, it aims to impose overt censorship without declaring it so. The third is that an intermediary body with an essential mission to strengthen freedom of expression is being employed to do the exact opposite. The fourth reason is that the print media has been put on notice to prove its innocence for a crime that has not even been proved, not even through the very mechanism that allows for due process of indictment. The timing is also dubious – most media moved away weeks ago from frontlining the seeming incongruity of Pakistan’s foreign policy on Yemen vis-a-vis blunt expectations of Saudi Arabia, in particular, and the other pro-Saudi Gulf state, in general.
It is puzzling that the PCP with its official mandate limited to strengthening print media and adjudicating disputes related to it is now somehow also in charge of managing the public narratives on foreign policy. One can discern government pressure from both elected and unelected mandarins of foreign policy activating the PCP to intimidate the media.
|An explosion at the arms depot in Yemen's city, Aden | AFP
So the question is: Is the PCP overstepping its mandate? The 11-page PCP Ordinance, 2002, seems to indicate so. Section 3 outlines its core mission, which is stated to be, “to implement the Ethical Code of Practice.” Section 8 has 14 clauses detailing the functions of PCP. None of these provide for singular or blanket directives to the media on restricting coverage on any issue. Clause (i) says: “The Council, while preserving the freedom of the press, shall maintain highest professional and ethical standards of newspapers and news agencies with a view to making them more responsive to the issues and concerns of the society in Pakistan.” This seeks to defend press freedoms and strengthening ethical reporting, not dictating or prohibiting a certain type of coverage. Clause (ii) seeks, “To help newspapers and news agencies to maintain their independence.” The PCP directive to APNS seems to actually contravene this. Clause (iii) explicitly mandates PCP, “To keep under review any development likely to restrict the dissemination of news of public interest and importance.” The PCP directive, again, seemingly does the opposite.
So the question is: Is the PCP overstepping its mandate? The 11-page PCP Ordinance, 2002, seems to indicate so.
Then, Clause 1 of Section 9 expressly states that a complaint needs to be in place before the PCP can act against an erring print media outlet. The PCP directive, by implication, obviates the need for and pre-empts any complaint, or demonstrate a grievance, while directly ordering a remedy! Section 10 outlines an elaborate process for filing complaints, none of which has been followed before issuing the directive. Clause 1 of this section actually prohibits PCP from offering any directive or binding advice without first a complaint filed in compliance with the outlined procedure. It says: “No complaint shall be entertained by the Council unless the complainant has first given a notice to the concerned editor or publisher within 15 days of the publication of the matter complained against or appropriate relief.” This hasn’t happened.
In short, the PCP has seemingly taken the liberty to arrogate to itself authority not vested to it under the law that governs it. According to Section 9, only an inquiry commission that independently investigates a complaint and suggests a solution provides the legitimacy of action that PCP can advise. This is not the case here. The PCP has no suo moto authority. Without an alleged crime and without following the due process of this law to indict, there can be no remedy. The PCP directive amounts to a blanket gag order, a directive of censorship. The PCP is seemingly morphing from a defender of press freedoms to a censor. This is tragic and has implications for media freedoms and citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of expression.